By Julie Lam
Literature underwent a radical change due to the rise of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1439, which ushered in a new era of literacy among the laity. Since that defining moment, the process in which we use to read has been relatively unchanging. That is, until the birth of computers. Now, the reading process is undergoing an extreme transformation once again as the primary components of literature, which we have been accustomed to since preschool, is being warped by a new age of writing known as electronic literature.
Electronic literature defamiliarizes our traditional method of reading. It prolongs our relationship with art, forcing the discovery of a meaningful message through our extended length of perception. Distortions of text encourages the formulation of new opinions and attitudes, while “dead” language and ritualized images which fill our literary landscapes compel us to reach for previous conclusions and understandings.
Since the creation of computers, a “page” as no longer just a static sheet of pressed cellulose pulp. Now, a “page” is our personal universe, where anyone can play god, where the seasons change beneath human fingertips. Brian Kim Stefans, one of the writers of the Electronic Literature Collection, utilized this digital advantage in his simple yet absorbing (not to mention frustrating) piece of digital work, “Star Wars: One Letter at a Time”. I began the program and it ran for only a second before I realized that the rules of reading that had been drilled into me since the early days of childhood were completely useless in this context. The standard left to right reading was not required. Even top to bottom was not vital in constructing meaning. This poem differed immensely from the original script in that the poem progressed just one letter a time, as the title indicates. Being a fan of George Lucas’ work, I expected to be unfazed by this difference. Nevertheless, I found myself engaged in such deep concentration that I caught myself gripping the edges of my computer desk nearly five minutes later. Even with my full attention, I could barely discern the letters thrust out at me. Formulating words or recognizing familiar pieces of dialogue were abruptly thrown to the bottom of my list of capabilities.
This example shows how a simple modification in the delivery of a narrative changes not only the way in which we read, but also in how we understand the literature. Stefan’s adaptation of the very familiar Star Wars story challenged me cognitively in a way the printed text version no longer could have. What’s more, my reading process was revitalized as my physical being was being uncharacteristically altered during the duration of the piece. I was tense, on edge. I stopped blinking entirely. I sat, unmoving, perched on the edge of my seat. Now that I think about it, my immobile position mimicked my cognitive progression. Stationary. I did say I tried to understand. I tried very hard, but I could not make sense of anything after “I n a g a l a x y f a r, f a r, a w a y”. Hopefully one day it will become easy for me. When that day comes, however, literature would probably undergo another radical change.