Research Professor, UC Irvine
Research Sample: On Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 11-12:
“The End of the Print Age”
The traditional function of the university as the place where libraries store literature from all ages and in all languages, along with secondary material, is now being rapidly usurped by digitized databases. Many of the latter are available to anyone with a computer, a modem, and access to the Internet through a server. More and more literary works are freely available online, through various websites. An example is “The Voice of the Shuttle,” maintained by Alan Liu and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara (http://vos.ucsb.edu/). The Johns Hopkins “Project Muse” makes dozens of journals available (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/index_text.html).
A spectacular example of this making obsolete of the research library is the William Blake Archive website (http://www.blakearchive.org/). This is being developed by Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Anyone anywhere who has a computer with an Internet connection, I for example on the remote island off the coast of Maine where I live most of the year and am writing this, may access, download, and print out spectacularly accurate reproductions of major versions of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and some of his other prophetic books. The original versions of these “illuminated books” are dispersed in many different research libraries in England and the United States. Formerly they were available only to specialists in Blake, to scholars with a lot of money for research travel. Research libraries will still need to take good care of the originals of all those books and manuscripts. They will less and less function as the primary means of access to those materials.
Literature on the computer screen is subtly changed by the new medium. It becomes something other to itself. Literature is changed by the new format. It is changed by the ease of new forms of searching and manipulation, and by each work’s juxtaposition with the innumerable swarm of other images on the Web. These are all on the same plane of immediacy and distance. They are instantaneously brought close and yet made alien, strange, seemingly far away. All sites on the Web, including literary works, dwell together as inhabitants of that non-spatial space we call cyberspace. Manipulating a computer is a radically different bodily activity from holding a book in one’s hands and turning the pages one by one. I have earnestly tried to read literary works on the screen, for example Henry James’s The Sacred Fount. I happened at one moment not to have at hand a printed version of that work, but found one on the Web. I was unable to read it. This no doubt identifies me as someone whose bodily habits have been permanently wired by the age of the printed book.