The Book: Life and Death of a Literary Technology
iPad and Kindle, e-publishing and print-on-demand, Amazon and the fate of the American bookstore. Since the turn of the 21st century, our relationship with the book – and with it, literature itself – has been transformed. What is this device that gave shape to writing and storytelling for over 1500 years? Where is it going in the new digital era?
This course offers an introduction to the book as a literary technology from ancient wax tablets to today’s tablet PCs. Instead of following the usual arc of literary history in a succession of authors and periods, we will explore the work of writers and readers – primarily in English – as imaginative responses to a variety of book-media: the animal-skin manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath; the printed codex of Shakespeare and Milton; the industrial-age periodicals of Charles W. Chesnutt and Charles Dickens; the “little magazines” of modernist poets Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound; the “Twitter fiction” of contemporary novelist Jennifer Egan. In the final weeks of the term, we will consider the uncertain future of books using J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. (2013), an experimental novel whose action takes place entirely in the margins of a library book. Evaluation will be based on one exam, two short papers, and regular in-class exercises. Students will leave the course with survey knowledge of English and American literature along with a working knowledge of the fundamentals of media history.