Future of literary masters

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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James Joyce’s Ulysses, the novel I spend much of my time teaching and thinking and writing about, is full of predictions, as chapters confidently assert what will happen in a horse race later today, in the careers of men in public life and in their friends’ futures. Occasionally, these characters’ predictions are correct, but usually they are wrong.

When experts were asked in 1999 to predict which then-prominent literary works would still be famous in another hundred years, Ulysses was at or near the top of most lists. When other knowledgeable literary people were asked which works would be forgotten a century later, Ulysses headed many of those lists, too.

I take these examples and my own generally dismal record of prediction as warnings about feeling too confident about anything I might say about the future.

Ulysses, however, is that threatened species: a book.

Joyce wrote his novel with an awareness it would be printed in magazine pages and as a book. He also did what he could to both exploit and extend the possibilities of fictional works in print and to overcome limitations that he perceived.

For example, Ulysses includes poetry, 150 pages of playscript and musical settings. Long sections avoid paragraph breaks and even punctuation; a chapter that takes place in a newspaper office looks somewhat like a newspaper as large, boldface, upper-case inserts resembling newspaper headlines interrupt the text every 15 or 20 lines.

Ulysses is very much tied to its physical existence as a book in print. Substantial parts of it are lost when it is presented in digital, audio, graphic form, as it often is today.

In what is sometimes called the ‘late age of print,’ however, what is really lost?

Homer’s poems were originally spoken aloud; Chaucer’s presented only in manuscript form; Shakespeare’s in print but with unstandardized spelling and punctuation so that many of its words and sentences can look unrecognizable to us in the 21st century.

And yet The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet and King Lear all continue to be read.

Forty years in the future, reading will surely seem like a quite different activity from the way we think of it. Perhaps people will read mostly on digital machines, although, since no one even six years ago would have imagined the ways in which iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other smartphones and tablets would come to pervade society, it would be folly to speculate on the forms those machines might take.

Many, but probably not all, works written for those machines will differ greatly from works written for print. And that is all to the good.

Perhaps Ulysses will be read in its original form only in rare-book libraries. If most people encounter it on a screen, some of its features, even ones some of us consider crucial, will be stripped of the significance they enjoy in a print text: the newspaper episode’s use of headline-type inserts, for example, will not mean much to people who have never read a print newspaper.

Much will be sacrificed, but, importantly, much also will be gained.

Easily accessible annotations, photographs of buildings that are named, audio versions of mostly forgotten songs that are mentioned or sung in the text might make some difficult aspects of Ulysses less forbidding and turn a reading experience as a digital text into, as they say, normal. I take heart from the students I have had the honor to teach – students who, faced with all kinds of reasons not to read, have not only persisted in reading literature but have become Honors English majors and graduate students in English – and predict that Ulysses, and other works of serious literature from the past and from times to come, will continue to find audiences and continue to thrive.

Michael Groden is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.