Glancing vaguely at a mildly interesting book on the shelf: 50 literature ideas you really need to know, by John Sutherland, I started to think about what has changed in the last 30 years or so of studying literature. Judging by Sutherland’s book, terms like “epic”, “irony”, “lyric” are still around, as they were years ago, but what has changed as a result of digital texts? The only reference to digital publishing in Sutherland’s book (published 2010) is “The e-Book”. Sutherland’s mini-essay on the e-Book is mainly concerned with Marshall McLuhan (I’d forgotten about him) and a stern warning from a professor of pharmacology at Lincoln College Oxford that the Web was creating a culture “devoid of cohesive narrative … characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity”. Clearly the Web has a lot to answer for. Leaving aside such sensationalist condemnation of the Web, have digital humanities changed the way literature is studied? Plenty of attention has been paid to the processing of textual content, but how has it changed the way students (and general readers) read, when they read digital editions of literary texts?
If nothing else, digital editions have one advantage: you don’t need such a good memory. I cannot read a lengthy novel these days without have a digital version available, so I can look up characters I missed earlier on. (Incidentally, can I put in a plea for better quality digital texts? Many of the Project Gutenberg digital texts are full of elementary OCR errors, making them almost impossible to use.)
But perhaps that reveals a more fundamental change in the way these texts are approached. For any major literary figure, the bulk or entirety of their work will be available in digital form. It’s certainly true that encourages the study of an author to be search-based rather than sequentially based. The influence of search is so great that our relationship to literature is fundamentally different. I can now state categorically that there are 23 references to “lune” in Baudelaire’s poems and prose poems. I know that the average length of a Baudelaire prose poem is 556 words. In other words, one change brought about by digital texts is the ability to analyse them in ways undreamt of before. It might be something of an overstatement to claim that textual analysis has become more competent, but it’s certainly become more precise. And perhaps one topic literature students could learn might be the power (and limits) of full-text searching.