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When Lit Blew Into Bits


The really stunning thing about Oscar Wao, in true aughts fashion, is its style. Díaz turns the book over to a small crowd of narrators, each of whom seems to channel 100 different subcultures and dialects. The result is a reference-studded Spanglish loaded so densely with extratextual shout-outs (ringwraiths, Le Corbusier, Joseph Conrad’s wife) it practically requires the web as an unofficial appendix. The book could have been sponsored by Google and Wikipedia; you either have to consult them constantly or just surrender to the vastness of the knowledge you don’t have—which is, of course, its own kind of pleasure.

It’s silly to try to predict what reading will look like 50 years from now, or even at the end of the next decade. We’re always going to mis-imagine the teleputers of tomorrow. Will books survive at all? Will a novel as innovative as Oscar Wao come to seem traditional compared to the busy interactive hypertexts we’ll all be neuroskimming on the mind screens of our Kortex-Kindles? Impossible to say. I prefer, though, to be optimistic. It feels equally silly, after all, in the midst of so much textual energy, to imagine we’re on the brink of the death of meaningful reading. Over the course of the aughts, the Internet and literature struggled toward tentative symbiosis. We saw online novels (e.g., Walter Kirn’s The Unbinding), the rise of book blogs, and the tech-refreshment of musty classics (The Aeneid as a Facebook page, Orwell’s diaries reformatted as a blog). We saw the advent of the paradoxical Kindle, a new machine that tries earnestly to act like something old. And we even saw, halfway through the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, an online project called Infinite Summer: a few thousand avid online readers joining together, via the technology of apocalyptic cognitive distraction—teleputer 2.0—to collectively plow their way through the analog expanse of Infinite Jest.


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