Consumption Junction :: Speaking with Ghosts: Literature in a Culture of Me

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by Lana Lynne on September 17, 2012
My copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, bought for a pretty penny for a freshman English class I don’t remember, is littered with half-formed thoughts jotted in the margins. At first, I only used pencil for these little notes – thinking that my take on something written anywhere from 50 to 300 years ago clearly did not qualify as canonical as what was printed. In grad school, my thinking must have changed, because when I cracked open the Anthology again (instead of buying another copy of the assigned T.S. Eliot’s "The Wasteland"), my comments were written in pen. At that point, I must have figured, my thoughts qualified for more permanency. I was more confident that what I had to say about Eliot’s poem would not cause fits of hysterical laughter from someone who might be reading over my shoulder.

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, and in an interview in the New York Times, founding editor M.H. Abrams and current editor Steven Greenblatt celebrate the joys of a life enriched by literature. When asked the question, "Why study literature?," they both wax poetic. For Abrams: "Ha — Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury. It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human. It makes life enjoyable." And for Greenblatt: "Literature is the most astonishing technological means that humans have created, and now practiced for thousands of years, to capture experience. For me the thrill of literature involves entering into the life worlds of others. I’m from a particular, constricted place in time, and I suddenly am part of a huge world — other times, other places, other inner lives that I otherwise would have no access to." What they both get at, but don’t say, is that literature helps us think critically. By expanding your worldview, or by traveling to the past, or by living other people’s lives for awhile, our brains are exercised in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise be. Our little comments in the margins, no matter how obvious or insignificant or ground-breaking, for that matter, are evidence that we are thinking in new ways. 

As far as the Anthology’s relevance today, Greenblatt argues that it provides a connection to our past: "Through reading literature," he says, "we can make ghosts speak to us, and we can speak back to them." Indeed, aren't the little comments we leave in the margins our own private conversation with these ghosts? Another interesting question for the editors would have been: How would these conversations change if the Norton Anthology was digitized, especially if we knew that the software on our e-readers was tracking our highlights, our comments, where we stopped reading, and where we started again? Would we be more self-conscious of what we wrote or underlined, or have we gained a certain confidence in today’s social media-saturated world, where people’s sense of sharing has been taken to new levels of tedium with Facebook, Twitter, and review sites? Not only that, if the publishers aggregated all the data from all the e-readers of the freshman Lit classes across the country, and found that not one student made it through Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” would they rethink including it in the next edition?

An article in the Wall Street Journal on the new technology used to track readers’ habits through their e-readers examines some of the potential issues for writers, publishers, and retailers when given such insight. Most of the so-called benefits come from being able to see when readers get bored with a text. With this spot pinpointed, the author or publisher could decide to add something to the text to keep their readers’ attention, such as a video or a hyperlink. Being able to see which lines in a work of fiction get the most amounts of highlights might give clues as to what themes, characters, emotions, or interactions appeal to audiences the most – giving the author a leg up for the next book he or she writes. On the other hand, some organizations have voiced concern over privacy issues, and some are concerned about the collection and use of such data on the creative process of writing. Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, says in the article: "The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn't have anything to do with. We're not going to shorten 'War and Peace' because someone didn't finish it."

Here again, we get caught up in the "art in the marketplace" conundrum. Of course artists want to sell their work, but what does it say about the creative product if every aspect has been created at the whims of the audience? Sure, there is room for popular fiction and pop culture (and great imaginative adaptations like The Graphic Canon, an anthology of literature in graphic form). But what becomes of the Norton Anthology? Not just in terms of its profitability for the publisher, but in terms of its future content. What great works will we produce in a culture of "give me more of me"?
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  1. James B.2:41 PM

    The state of creativity today! I just saw one of those quotes passed around facebook all the time, and it said something like, "We need to be our work." It was referring to people who write or do art for their public and not for the work itself. In today's ME culture, too many people are only working for the "next big thing" and not for the joy of the work itself. Quality doesn't matter if you have the quantity - in hits, views, likes, and cash money. Can this trend be slowed or reversed? Only if the ME culture is devalued somehow.

  2. Anonymous2:06 PM

    Most people don't really read at all anymore! If it's not 140 characters or less or on one of these e-cards, it's too long. Maybe we should figure out how to condense the classics into a tweet or two.

  3. I like your idea of the "me culture" because I think it describes perfectly how many people are acting these days.

  4. What a question you pose at the end! It will be an interesting one to find out years from now that's for sure.


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