THE ENDURANCE OF LITERATURE: on “The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books” (edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee)

Here, with minor edits, is a piece written originally for the first iteration of the Glasgow Review of Books. It appeared online in April 2011, and as that version of the site has not been archived, I am re-posting it here. 

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screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-14-23-39In an entry on The Millions literature blog at the start of 2011, C. Max Magee, one of the editors of The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, ended a notice about the book’s release by appealing to both sides of an increasingly crucial line: “All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own.” The introduction to the book rewords it thus: “if you’re reading these words on a device that requires batteries, charge it up before you get too deep. If you’re staring at a dog-eared paperback, now’s the time to get yourself a cup of coffee.” This is the line – real or imagined – on which this book teeters, the moment of the uneasy cohabitation of print and digital books. Whilst its title and subtitle are concerned with times beyond our own, what The Late American Novel really captures is a snapshot of early 2011, as e-reader sales get bigger and bigger and bricks and mortar bookshops close left, right and centre. As such, this snapshot is kaleidoscopic and partial, and all the better for it. In this sense, Lauren Groff’s contribution, “Modes of Imagining the Writer of the Future” acts as a representative for the entire collection: she imagines the future writer alternatively as elitist, robot, outcast and beggar, a celebrity or a kind of rockstar-monarch, a pawn of governments, a fashion accessory and conjurer. Each piece in this book seems like a place-holder, a compendium of thoughts set out on the page so as to be observable and reworked at a later date. What becomes evident is that no-one really has any idea what will happen. Will paper die a quick and miserable death? Who knows. 

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