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The Humber Literary Review

UnknownReview of The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age? (originally published in The Humber Literary Review, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 2014)

Paul Socken, editor

McGill-Queen’s University Press, August 2013

As evidenced by the many publications recently dedicated to the matter of reading in the digital age, bibliophiles are hard at work these days fretting over the current state of books, especially the paper version, and pondering and prognosticating their murky future.

Tasking a diverse group of writers and academics, as retired University of Waterloo French professor Paul Socken does, with answering the question, “Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?” produces a few predictable and overworked responses; the usual and very valid arguments against reading texts on digital devices, for instance, are presented in several essays. Still, the collection generates some genuinely affecting and admirable defenses of the role of reading in what Gerhard van der Linde, one of the book’s contributors, calls our lifeworld.

In “Why Read Against the Grain? Confessions of an Addict,” Van der Linde argues convincingly that the demands of the literary text counteract our pervasive Internet culture of “speed and immediacy.” To Van der Linde, the literary text “undermines the reduction of communication to the greatest common denominator by rejecting the simplification and banalization of language.” Required to slow down and attune herself to the text’s internal rhythm, the reader benefits from more coherent thinking and a greater sense of self-awareness – advantages not to be had from our digital obsession with “quick results and cheap thrills.”

Alberto Manguel expresses similar concerns in “The End of Reading” about the impact on literacy of our culture of speed and immediacy. A fierce defender of the power of the literary text to inspire imaginative freedom and to guard against close-mindedness, fear, and oppression, Manguel points to the dangers of our digital reality: “The electronic text, in its very accessibility, lends users the illusion of appropriation without the attendant difficulty of learning. The essential purpose of reading becomes lost to them, and all that remains is the collecting of information, to be used when required.” The implication of achieving what Manguel refers to as only a superficial literacy, is that readers – especially the young – are not capable of deeper critical thinking or reflection, of asking crucial questions about their world.

Other contributions to the collection, such as Leonard Rosmarin’s “How Moliere and Co. Helped Me Get My Students Hooked on Literature,” and Stephen Brockmann’s “Literature as Virtual Reality,” reflect on the frustrations and joys of teaching literature to today’s post-secondary students. A common problem for literature professors now is convincing young people, immersed and more interested in a fast-moving, sharing-obsessed age of tweets, texts, and status updates that literature may still be relevant to their lives. Amusingly, and with real insight, Brockmann channels the thinking of a typical student in one of his classes who finds no pleasure or use in literature:

If I contrast the static, non-interactive nature of literature with my own world as a twenty-year-old, literature stands virtually no chance. I live in a constantly changing environment full of interesting, new things. What is the digital age for me? The digital age is Facebook, text messaging, Twitter, computer games, digital photography, digital music. What differentiates this world, my world, from the world of literature is its dynamism and its applicability to me.

It is this constant, solipsistic need to interact and share that worries Drew Nelles in “Solitary Reading in an Age of Compulsory Sharing,” and that compels him to question the use of social reading apps like Amazon’s Goodreads. The “fragile, incalculable value of being alone” is taken from us when even our choice of books is made public. Reading, for Nelles, should be a richly solitary enterprise, not necessarily a social one: “Books are a great gift because they grant us solace in our seclusion.”

The Edge of the Precipice is an erudite and entertaining read that will both comfort and perturb a reader with concerns about the future of reading (and who else, really, is likely to read this collection?). The question, “Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?” has, for many of us, an obvious answer. Nevertheless, it is a vital question to ask in a time of transition when we can’t know for certain what lies ahead. As Socken says in his introduction, “The leap of the imagination into unknown worlds is like sitting at the edge of a precipice, glimpsing new vistas while remaining precariously connected to one’s familiar surroundings.”

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