Friday, November 8, 2013

Literary Study in the Digital Age: 17 Comparisons and a Provocation

How is the study of literature evolving today? This is a crucial question for the digital humanities. It is a topic that prior students and I explored in our eBook, Writing About Literature in the Digital Age. I invite you to browse its table of contents or download it for free.

I'm taking our thinking from there a bit further. Below, I list 17 specific comparisons between traditional literary study from the print period and the ways by which it is transforming in our digital age.

We who study literature need to come to terms with the new conditions for communication that are operative in our digital culture. I offer these starting points. For good measure (and to invite response), I conclude this post with a spirited challenge to the future of literary study as we know it.


  1. Awareness 
    • Prior to the digital age, learning of the existence and importance of literature happened mostly in school settings (where books would be chosen and assigned by a teacher), or in libraries (by librarian suggestions and through book lists and printed subject indexes), or in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Some knowledge of literature might come through broadcast media or popular culture and word of mouth.
    • Within the digital age, becoming aware of literature still comes about through word of mouth and in school settings, but also through commercial sites (like Amazon); book-based social networks (like Goodreads and Shelfari); book-related blogs; and incidentally within major social media (as when one's favorite books are listed on a Facebook profile or one hears about what friends are reading in a news feed or tweet stream). One also finds out about classic literary works by way of a broad range of available adaptations or remixes of the text. Those might include professional or amateur film adaptations, adaptations to video games, etc. The algorithms of recommendation systems now also bring to our attention classic literary works as we are told that "customers who purchased _______ have also purchased _________." The long tail of content resurfaces well known (and less known) literary works. More people are aware of more literary works than ever before -- including the proliferation of new and independently published works of fiction, poetry, etc.
  2. Access
    • Prior to the digital age, accessing a literary work meant obtaining a print copy of the book. This might come from a school, a library, or a bookstore. It would require paying for the book, or borrowing it. In the 20th century a small percentage of readers got access to books through cassette tape audio recordings.
    • In the digital age, accessing a literary work might still mean obtaining a printed book. But this will be mediated by a database or web service. You might find a cheaper source for purchasing a printed book online, or at the least you will use a library's database to locate a book or see if it is checked out. The idea of a book being unavailable because it is in use by someone else grows increasingly antiquated as access is now becoming digital access to the full text of a literary work. This is readily done through various ebook services, or (if a work is in the public domain) through a free service like Project Gutenberg or Google Books. As readers begin obtaining many ebooks, these become accessible through the cloud and across different platforms and devices. I can access my Kindle version of Moby Dick on any desktop computer via a web browser, as well as on my tablet computer or my smartphone. 
  3. Editions 
    • Prior to the digital age, available editions for a classic work like Moby Dick might include a popular trade paperback edition, a hardbound (perhaps illustrated) edition, and maybe a scholarly edition. These would all most likely be in English, and would have been published for at least a year (and possibly decades).
    • In the digital age, available editions for a classic work like Moby Dick multiply. Discovery tools and the long tail of commerce make it possible not only to quickly find mass market or scholarly editions, but to learn of and obtain children's editions, foreign language editions, audio versions, illustrated editions, etc. Digital editions are also diverse, including free ebook versions, or more sophisticated editions that include scholarship or that are in an enhanced ebook or app format.
  4. Reading
    • Prior to the digital age, reading the text of a literary work would mean carrying about a printed book of many pages and mostly reading silently and privately. In some settings a teacher might read aloud portions. In rare settings, a book on tape might be available to listen to.
    • In the digital age, reading a classic novel can still take place with the printed text, but especially with longer works like Moby Dick, readers are choosing to keep and access their libraries in the cloud or on their devices. This changes where and how one reads a text (as does the possibility of getting a text in an alternate format such as an audiobook or an app). I might not have taken Moby Dick with me as a printed text in numerous settings. But I can read classic literary works any time I want to on my smartphone that's always with me. The multiple media and portability of various digital editions change not only the locations but the social configurations for reading.  
  5. Annotating
    • Prior to the digital age, annotating a literary work for study purposes would mean either underlining and writing notes in the margins of a personal copy of the book, or else taking notes separately with pen and paper. 
    • In the digital age, annotating the text of a literary work can still mean using print books or paper and a pen or pencil. However, it is increasingly common to use highlighting and notation tools built into e-reading software. The annotations I make to my ebook version of Moby Dick are synchronized. What I highlight or write a note about from my desktop shows up on my other devices where I access the book. What is more, services like Amazon or Kobo are introducing socialized annotations. One can be taken to the most highlighted passages of a book and find out what many other readers of the same book have felt is noteworthy. Annotation is increasingly becoming connected to a social experience of literary works. The Amigo Reader or Kobo software allow for live chat with other readers while one is reading the book. Annotation becomes communication.
  6. Analysis
    • Prior to the digital age, analysis of a literary work would depend upon current literary theories, available scholarship, and the setting in which one read the book. A good edition of a text would include an introduction and notes to assist one in analyzing themes, etc.  In a classroom, a teacher might bring to the text various literary theories. Students might consult summaries and analysis found in Cliffs Notes or Monarch Notes.
    • In the digital age, analysis of literary works can still include applying various literary theories to the text, but it is now less possible to study a text in isolation from the many contexts (historical or contemporary) that are accessible online. The very concept of "a text" has broadened to include various iterations or adaptations of a work. And while historical or cultural studies have always looked at the context for literary works, access to context is so simple today that it is de rigeur. For example, online archives and available digitized editions or artifacts from when a book was originally written or published beg to be applied to analysis. And given the proliferation of various adaptations of classic literary texts, it becomes impossible to study the text of a work like Moby Dick without also attending to the web of ways it has been adapted and put to use in modern and popular culture. In addition, the analysis of a literary text in the digital age can include direct manipulation of a text for analytical purposes. What if a rich descriptive passage of prose were recast as lines of poetry? What if the literary work were broken up into different sections or chapters? One may download, copy and paste, reformat, and redesign a book (or create one's own adaptation or multi-media version). As user-generated content increasingly borrows from public domain content like classic literary texts, we can begin to see a kind of analysis of the text taking place by way of choices made by amateurs in remixing that text. Analysis of the text today may involve curating a set of resources about a given text. Curation is done through criteria, and the application of that criteria makes curated content a new genre of textual analysis.
  7. Quotation
    1. Prior to the digital age, the quotation of literary texts happened within literary criticism and in teaching settings. Literary quotations have often been anthologized in quote books, such as Bartlett's famous compilation. Some people memorize literary passages and quote these in various speaking and social settings.
    2. In the digital age, quotation occurs as before, but has also become a different animal. This is because of the ease with which it is possible to find literary texts in electronic form, then cut and paste passages of text. Quotations have become a kind of derivative commodity in the digital economy, having their own life in a vast array of outlets, including blogs, tweets, song lyrics, memes, and imitations or remixes. Borrowing and adapting literary texts is simple to do now, and so it is done more.
  8. Instruction 
    • Prior to the digital age, obtaining instruction about a literary work was limited to school settings in which a teacher or lecturer was physically present before students. Some correspondence courses or taped lectures circulated before the internet, but these were highly limited. You want to be taught about Moby Dick? Enroll in a class or attend a lecture.
    • In the digital age, instruction about literary works still happens in face-to-face school settings through direct instruction and lectures. However, increasingly literary instruction is occurring through distance education, either through established institutions for credit (and costing money) or for free and not for certification. The latter occurs through open educational resources, such as MIT's open courseware, or through massive open online courses (MOOCs) like those offered by Coursera. Instruction about literature is readily available online through ebooks, podcasts, and videos either for free or paid. Both professionals and amateur enthusiasts are also freely teaching the world about literature through their personal blogs or in high-traffic online sites such as YouTube or Vimeo. Platforms such as iTunesU offer the prospect of covering a complete college curriculum (including literary study) through a variety of vetted content suppliers offering free downloads of texts, audio, and video. One no longer need attend a class in person, or officially matriculate as a student, to have access to instruction about literature. 
  9. Research
    • Prior to the digital age, literary research would require using a physical library, searching through printed (and usually dated) periodical indexes and using a card catalogue with its Dewey Decimal and later Library of Congress subject headings to discover scholarship about the book.
    • Digital age literary research still involves finding scholarly journals and books, but the finding tools are faster and more sophisticated. Not only are there federated searching tools that look across a host of databases and services, but there are also networks of scholars that can be discovered (such as through Academia.edu). This makes it possible for even the most amateur students of literature to find out the most current scholarship by experts. At the same time, given high expectations for full text access, important critical studies of classic literary works go unread because they are only available in print or behind pay walls. Today sophisticated tools are available for searching scholarly criticism of classic literature (such as Google Scholar), but some of the best such tools (like JSTOR or Project Muse) are expensive subscription databases only available to students or faculty at large institutions. Researching the text will increasingly include the step of researching the events, organizations, and social networks where such texts are valued and discussed, and may also include directly contacting active scholars.
  10. Adaptations
    • Prior to the digital age, examining various adaptations of literary works would be difficult to manage without knowledge of and access to spinoffs or adaptations in other media. In the 20th century, film adaptations of literary texts began to be increasingly known about and circulated. Viewing of such films would be limited. It would be impractical to look at how other cultures or languages might have adapted the text (unless one were an academic with know-how and resources to access alternate versions). 
    • In the digital age, studying adaptations of a literary work is now almost easier than studying the original literary text itself. One can find audio versions, film versions, graphic novel versions, children versions, foreign language editions, etc. The ease of finding (and creating) adaptations gives the avatars of literary works increasingly centrality in literary study.
  11. Discussion 
    • Prior to the digital age, discussing a literary work would happen in a classroom, in a book club, at a lecture, or in personal, informal settings among a small set of people.
    • In the digital age, discussing a literary work is no longer limited to informal personal contact, a class, or a scholarly setting. Discussing literary texts is now a worldwide phenomenon that reaches as widely as do the social media or the circulation of ebooks. As mentioned above, some ebook platforms make possible live chat about a book from within the ebook itself. In addition, there are specialty blogs and niche literary communities online where reviews and discussions generate more words about literature than in the more traditional scholarly outlets. And while that discussion is of a different quality, its quantity is substantial and influences the reception and understanding of texts. Discussions of texts are often conjoined with discussions of adaptations of classic literature (such as happens within fanfiction or discussions of film adaptations). One can broadcast to others what one is currently reading (such as using the hashtag #amreading on Twitter). Informal reviews appear on blogs or in video book reviews. There is a shortage of quality control, but no shortage of discussion about classic literary works online. 
  12. Presentation
    • Prior to the digital age, presenting about literature would happen orally and locally, with limited (if any) visuals, either informally (in a book club) or in a school setting. There would be no thought as to preserving or making a presentation more broadly available, as this was impractical. Limited media, limited life, limited reach. 
    • Today, creating and giving presentations about literature can involve a variety of available digital media, compiled within presentation software such as PowerPoint, Keynote, or Prezi. Moreover, such presentations are often distributed online through services such as Slideshare.net where they are consulted and often reused and adapted (when accompanied with a creative commons license). Screencasting tools make it possible to demonstrate and narrate whatever one is doing on a computer, and video creation and sharing tools extend the reach of presentations as wide as the internet. Presentations at conferences are often videotaped and redistributed online. Sometimes presenters appear virtually at a live conference by way of a Skype connection. Readers are also hosting or attending webinars or otherwise using widely available video tools to tutor or otherwise present about their views of literary texts.
  13. Criticism
    • Prior to the digital age, writing about literature would be limited to very informal writing (such as mentioning one's reading in one's diary or in a paper letter) or to more formal academic writing (which would be read by one's teacher, if one were a student, or by one's scholarly peers, if one were a professor).
    • In the digital age, writing about literature can still take the form of formal academic essays, but it is increasingly the case that writing about literature happens informally on blogs and other social media. Also, responding to a text today does not always mean responding with paragraphs or pages of text. It may mean very short form writing like tweets or microblogging posts. Or, it may mean composing "response content" that can be of many different media: a video book review, an Instagram photo, a Pinterest board, etc. Curation, as mentioned above, is a kind of criticism that takes many forms today.
  14. Publication
    • Prior to the digital age, any publishing about literature would require submitting a scholarly analysis to a print journal, waiting through a reviewing period, and, upon acceptance, waiting for the print publication to come out. With rare exception, that publication would go to a few hundred libraries and scholars.
    • In the digital age, publishing literary criticism continues within traditional scholarly outlets of academic journals and monographs. These are increasingly available online. Such outlets have cut costs and turnaround time required for vetting and editing, often by using tools like the Public Knowledge Project's Open Journal System. They still are at risk of going unread, however, given the lack of adoption of open access scholarly publishing practices. Consequently, especially for students and amateurs, publishing literary criticism is not done as much through such formal routes with their long delays and highly limited audiences. It is easier simply to post an essay on a blog, or put up a review on a site like Goodreads.
  15. Scholarly "conversation" 
    • Prior to the digital age, the scholarly conversation about literary works would take place slowly, as those responding to one's scholarship did so with other scholarship, going through the reviewing and publishing process over the course of many years. 
    • In the digital age, the scholarly conversation about literary texts continues at its print-era speed, more or less, due to the inefficiencies of formal peer review and of the publishing process. The more robust conversation about literary texts has moved its gravitational center away from formal scholarship to the social media where opinions are rapidly exchanged through media that are less sluggish. In a day when readers are quickly and ably analyzing and discussing literary texts in a lively public arena, the more authoritative scholarly discussions become less visible and influential due to the length of their analyses, their slowness of getting to the public, the lack of public access to scholarship, the lack of media besides text, and their existence far to the side of the most active online conversations.
  16. Editing
    • Prior to the digital age, the editing of literature was always tied to formal scholarly or publishing efforts and was seen as a kind of handmaid to the more serious enterprise of literary interpretation. One obtained various source texts, compared these by hand, then established one's own version of the text, which meant the physical format as well as whatever scholarly helps (footnotes, etc.) that might aid readers. This was a slow process completed by experts and it took a lot of time.
    • In the digital age, professional editing of literary works continues as before, but ever since easy tools for creating and selling books have emerged, editions of literary works (especially those in the public domain) are appearing without professional oversight. This has greatly reduced the quality control of literature. At the same time, the circulation of so many poorly edited versions of texts has highlighted the need for editing. In addition, editing is becoming a kind of analysis or a mode of literary creativity (for example, as someone prepares a hypertext or multimedia edition).
  17. Authoring
    • Prior to the digital age, authoring a literary work was something many might attempt but few would see through to publication. Authors who succeeded in publishing might interact with their readers through letters or reviews, but the author-reader relationship was at a distance. Moreover, it was the literary work itself, not other information, that most spoke about the author. Biographical information about authors was limited, as was meaningful relationships between authors and readers.  
    • In the digital age, authoring a literary work has been reinvented through desktop publishing and now through online publishing platforms that cater to self publishers (like BookBaby, Lulu, Smashwords, and CreateSpace) and to online bookstores that carry both print books and ebooks (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.). Authorship itself has evolved in the digital age, as information about authors and direct connection with them is increasingly possible and desirable. One can follow the social media of an author or interact with him or her through Google Hangouts, through a Goodreads author page, the author's blog, or other social media. Consequently, studying literature nowadays really means bringing the author's life more into the picture, since his or her personality will have a presence (usually) as much as his or her published work.
The Future of Literary Study
In making these comparisons, I have begun from the point of view of print-based literary study, examining its core practices and then looking for how these are evolving digitally. I point this out because had I started from the other way around, the comparison might have come out differently.

For example, we are quickly reaching the point at which literary study cannot be isolated from the study of media more generally. As educators currently debate what should constitute 21st-century literacy, what is never up for debate is the need to broaden literacy to include communication technologies beyond the printed word. Won't literary study follow literacy?

Another factor requires radical rethinking of literary study: the profoundly social and generative nature of the new media. For centuries, learners have been in a subordinate position to authors (who were seen as more knowledgeable and professional, more artistic, or more intellectually advanced). Today, learning both to read and to write is becoming so integrated with creating and sharing content that we are all becoming authors (or perhaps, "content creators" or "media designers") with a lively sense of audiences that we are intent upon reaching with our words and content. Won't this influence our relationship to literature?

If I am a creator, my stance toward literary texts or art generally changes. And while that may not become a peer relationship, the way I understand created things is now in terms of being in the game, not on the sidelines. I appropriate, I imitate, and I remix any available content streams, with traditional literature being just one tributary. What does it do to literary study when reading and interpreting texts is seen as something one does on the way to creating and sharing one's own stuff? How will authors of the past be understood differently as we all become authors in the present?

A Provocation
Try this one on for size: "Literary study" will soon label a kind of vestigial mindset and set of practices that (for reasons increasingly difficult for people to understand) is intent upon keeping consumers of this content isolated from one another, away from the interactive and collaborative modes that are now most native to us. Maybe "literary study" will become a derogatory term, a faux elitism that labels a type of engagement with ideas and content that oddly stays committed to a single-medium experience. Literary study has always bordered on elitism; today's medium reveals traditional literary study as fundamentally anti-social.

Why would anyone devote themselves seriously to literary study if being an English major or a professor of literature means acquiring the habit of restricting oneself from communicating with available audiences? If it means not creating but merely interpreting? Or if it means creating, but only kinds of private writing -- not producing and sharing content for authentic audiences using pictures and appropriate connecting skills? If it means not collaborating and interacting but generating "papers" whose life ends when read by the intended audience of one? Maybe literary study is a hallmark -- a mark of shame, even -- that commemorates a passive, consumption approach to knowledge. We may understand this historically as an accident of the available intellectual media. However, if we retain the privacy and passivity of traditional literary study, then the function of such study is effectively to deny and incapacitate the very liberalism of mind for which literature is supposedly an ideal vehicle.

What do you think? Is literary study being revived and given new legs? Or is it undergoing a kind of last gasp, its dark underbelly exposed and vulnerable? Will literary study flourish in the new medium, or will it soon be eclipsed by larger categories and customs that are less dependent on print culture's limiting ways of thinking and communicating?