The New Digital Romanticism

Every medium creates not only the conditions of its use, but also shapes the way we know. In textual studies, the pathways that lead us to texts somehow affect how it is we come to think about these texts. But this is so hard to quantify, so inscrutable, that it’s almost easier to forget about the medium.

In 1992, while in grad school in English at Penn State, many of the more obscure American novels that I was interested in from the early 1800s were only accessible on microfilm. Pre Google book scanning, this required trudging to the basement of Pattee Library and looking at the books on screen. There was something quietly romantic about the entire process, especially untying the paper identification tag that secured the microfilm leader to the reel. Alone in the cool, dark library basement, you got the feeling you were also alone in the world, reading something–in this case Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1839 novel The Adventures of Robin Day–that no one else was even thinking about right now.

Of course, this is nostalgia. The truth is, the microfilm reading process was only adventuresome for the first few minutes, until nausea set in as the frames whirred by on the screen. Textual motion sickness. Which is why, for texts that I really wanted to study, I’d have the library printing services make paper copies from the microfilm, which I’d then have bound at Kinko’s.

Robin Day, copied from microfilm and spiral-bound and covered at Kinko's, 1992.

Now, a novel like Robin Day is available at Google Books, whose keyword search capabilities make such obscure texts accessible in profound ways, ways that will inevitably shape the very sorts of questions we bring to such books in the first place. But beyond that, remote research and textual investigation (i.e, from wherever you are now) signals the emergence of what we might call the New Digital Romanticism. Because, oddly enough, digital technology makes possible the escape from technology, insomuch as we can now lose ourselves not in “nature” but in texts heretofore hidden, inaccessible, unknown, bringing to bear on them the force of our individual imaginations. In fact, that’s what all this excess of the digital era requires: the force of imagination, so that we become the shapers, not the shaped.

Next up: the use of the word “tatterdemalion” in Robin Day by way of the New Digital Romanticism.

About Nicholas

Writer. Professor.
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