Learning to read (at PEN World Voices)

Alberto Ruy Sánchez

So, I am going to break with tradition a bit and write about a panel I attended yesterday Friday on the future of reading in the digital age, part of the PEN World Voices Festival. Panelists Ben Okri, Alberto Ruy Sánchez, Thomas Pletzinger and Sergei Sokolovskiy (whose outlandish pronouncements brought a welcome element of performance art to the discussion) engaged in a lively and generally even-handed discussion of the effect that digital technologies like e-readers, weblogs and Twitter will have on the future of the written word. All in all, the event went pretty well. In fact, apart from the requisite wackadoo audience question, there was really only one minor snag. To whom it may concern: if PEN asks you to moderate a panel of international writers, figure out how to pronounce their names and publications BEFORE you introduce them. I’m just saying.

Although each writer had his own idea of the possibilities and potential dangers of digital technology as it relates to literature, there were some interesting points of convergence throughout the discussion. No one seemed to think that the material object, “the book,” was in danger of extinction, and all seemed – each in his own way – to suggest that a new genre or form was beginning to emerge through these technologies which need not occupy the same space as the printed word.

And now, the highlights:

Ben Okri, one of the first writers to compose a Twitter poem, stressed the tactile aspect of the printed book as something technology could never replace, and consistently bemoaned the limitations of new media. Okri also asserted that the reader’s imagination – and not embedded images, videos, or music – is the key to realizing the potential of the written word. Imagination, he insisted, is the true form of interactivity.

Alberto Ruy Sánchez emphasized the continuity between certain digital forms and their analog predecessors: the similarity between ancient scrolls and CSS, for example. He also insisted that the secret to making the most of the new opportunities afforded by digital media is to use these various elements not as illustrations of the text, but as its complements. This reminds me of Mario Bellatin’s Jacobo el mutante, a wild amalgam of biography, apocrypha and literary criticism interspersed with a haunting photo essay that relates only tangentially to the surrounding text.

Overall, Ruy Sánchez was the most enthusiastic proponent of new media platforms, which makes sense given that he has nearly 2,000 people following his blog and over 6,100 friends on Facebook. He also seemed to be the writer for whom digital communications served the most vital creative purpose, both as a means to an end (research) and as an independent medium.

Thomas Pletzinger suggested that works will eventually be written with these multimedia platforms in mind (rather than the majority of contemporary works, which are generally retrofitted to the new technologies available), but questioned whether these could really be considered novels. He also pointed out that the interactivity of these platforms is restricted by their programming and the options presented to the reader. This seems like a pretty intuitive observation, but one that maybe doesn’t get enough consideration. Does the addition of hyperlinks to a text, for example, restrict or enhance the experience of the reader?

It would be difficult, to say the least, to sum up Sergei Sokolovskiy‘s comments. Early on in the panel, he did give my favorite sound byte of the entire session, saying – in rough paraphrase of the translation of his interpreter – that he has had a traumatic history with weblogs. “Through blogs,” he said,

I discovered the dark side of humanity. Given the opportunity to document their lives in real time, people whom I have respected for years reveal themselves to be deeply uninteresting.

Fantastic. Sokolovskiy then described his own blog as an epistolary experiment directed at one specific individual that he viewed as being most successful when it forestalled any and all comments, and went on to posit the futility of merging literature with other art forms. According to him, it is rarely great works of literature that become great films, operas, or paintings. Literary value and adaptability to other media, he suggested, are not one and the same.

Ultimately, the panel raised more questions than it answered (as, I believe, a panel like this should). How have these changes affected the writer’s relationship to time? Does the immediacy of these new media leave any space for reflection? What’s more – and more interesting perhaps: what happens to the way we understand memory in a world that increasingly defers to the recollective power of search engines? What happens to Proust’s madeleine?

For more sustained ruminations on these questions, I recommend if:book, the weblog of the Institute for the Future of the Book. More information and audio from the event can be found on the PEN American Center website.


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