The creation of a new evaluative metric, though, does not automatically mean the destruction of its predecessors. Wright cites early examples of lists of important books as “an attempt to manage the emergent mass literate population of the late 19th century, and to mark the territory of the already literate cultural elite.” Eventually, additional “cultural intermediaries” emerged to tell society which books are important: academics, reviewers, prize committees, publishers, booksellers. The digital age hasn’t eclipsed these intermediaries’ power, but Wright argues that it has given readers a greater say in the decisions.

Lists of the “most important” books—whether generated by a Facebook community, the Modern Library, or the editors of a magazine—are about the formation of the canon, the texts that are socially ordained as important, to be taught in schools and reissued in Penguin Classics editions. As Wright and others show, the old guard is already de facto represented in online book culture. But to the extent those critics who are inherently disgusted by digital technology continue to see the relationship between digital culture and book culture as antagonistic, they forfeit the opportunity to argue for their values in this new space. What puzzles me about the skeptics who say book culture won’t survive the digital revolution is that they posit the infinite ability of technology to evolve new ways to distract and debase us, but leave no room for technology to advance in ways that artfully mimic and improve upon previous mediums—becoming more human-friendly, more accessible, and more desirable in the process. Why can’t the classics be redeemed by new technology, rather than trampled by it?

The year after I first heard Bauerlein’s “Milton vs. Myspace” lecture in 2006, Amazon released the Kindle. Today, The Dumbest Generation is currently on sale at the Kindle store. And Milton’s Paradise Lost is now available for free via Apple’s iBooks store, where it currently enjoys a 3.5-star user rating (on a five-star scale). Myspace, meanwhile, has become a ghost town. Online straw men come and go. Epic poetry abides.

 

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer.