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This item is taken from PN Review 123, Volume 25 Number 1, September - October 1998.

How can magazines like PN Review shorten the distance between their present constituency of readers and the emerging generation, now at school - at one of those schools whose librarians are currently looking a gift-horse in the mouth and deciding that the impressive library of classics offered gratis by a major publisher have no place in their school library? Books that those of us who have not been in a school library for years would imagine to be necessary, the givens of any self-respecting secondary school library: Homer, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer... The response of the tabloid and broadsheet press to the churlish rejection of the gift was predictable: what is our culture coming to, they cry with apocalyptic gusto. One can imagine in what spirit the vitriolic journalists conducting their telephone interviews with librarians, and then with stolid literary figures whose opinions matched their own, then how they steamed at their word-processors, and finally dumped their copy down the line to their papers where computers assist in the correction and presentation of their rage. Dumping copy down the very lines which they use to find information on the web, to order books, or pizzas, or pornography, or holidays.

A literary magazine can hardly appeal to a generation, but if it has a future it must have elements of a shared past with its readers. 'Spenser' and 'sonnet' and 'Modernist' and 'enjambement' will mean something to each and all of them. A shared basic terminology, shared referents, do not imply homogeneity, but they do make dialogue possible. The fact that school librarians, pressed for space, have been reluctant to accept the Greeks Bearing Great Book Gifts and have given the reasons for their reluctance, provoked much commentary. It's less a question of the future of literary magazines such as PN Review, which aspire to a 'general readership', more a question of future readership tout court.

Beyond the schools, the universities. One positive development in the teaching of English literature in recent years has been the emergence of ESSE, the European Society for the Study of English, with several thousand members. Its conferences debate central pedagogic issues and, inevitably, the question of canonicity, with arguments and counterarguments that 'great literature' is being displaced by 'relevant literature', that within emerging post-colonial cultures 'nationalism' has a positive valency which in the older cultures - Britain, America - would be regarded as obscene, that Modernism is dead and we are moving beyond the post-Modern into more or less complete relativism, and that the book is an endangered commodity.

If we make the effort to put ourselves in the place of a librarian in a secondary school or a university department, with limited resources (including shelf-space) and an uncertain constituency, we can begin to understand why a complete set - even free - of Dickens, occupying two feet on a shelf, along with Hardy and Defoe and Fielding and Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Cervantes, might appear a mixed blessing. Such books would not be used, whereas secondary literature on Carter, or Forster, or Amis, or Heaney, would be called down daily. It is not the fault of the librarian, who provides a service to the school or department, that books regarded as classics seem an impediment rather than a resource. What the librarian needs is screens, keyboards, the web and its fluid treasures.

In fact, instead of physical texts what the modern library requires is on-screen literature, primary and secondary. The words are all there, the characters and cadences and structures, but delivered in a different, less space-greedy form. Secondary literature, too, can be provided in this form. The old microfilm libraries were an awkward foretaste of this modern possibility, that a tiny village library or the most underfunded school can give readers flickering access to positively Bodleyan resources.

The reader cannot take such texts (they are no longer books) off the shelf, or scrawl in the margins. Bits can be downloaded and taken home, but the screen, with its inexhaustible wealth, remains in the library. There are disadvantages, but there is the potential advantage of universal access, of a democratic cyberspace and the great works unchained, floating in the ether, awaiting the keystroke which will draw them into their fixed sequence.

Given the search mechanisms available, it is possible for an ambitious student to trace phrases, constructions and forms through from Chaucer and Gower to Auden and Larkin, or to move backwards from Pound into those elements that constituted Pound's memory and imagination. A defining technology of post-Modernism, the random access available today can become the instrument which reverses the post-Modern and makes Modernism not only comprehensible but viable once more. It is all a question of how the technology is used, and who instructs the student in its use.

The treason of the clerks in recent decades has been scepticism about the new resources: do they not trivialise or degrade canonical texts? But what has been held sacred is the book rather than the words and structures that the book conventionally contains. Academics are content to use e-mail or to establish personal and departmental web-sites, even to devise elaborate search mechanisms for and within texts; but the book or 'refereed journal' is generally regarded as the ultimate receptacle of their serious findings, its apparent permanence, its possessability, providing concrete proof of intellectual endeavour of the kind which research appraisal exercises that determine university funding recognise.

Those of us who prefer to hold words on paper, propped on our chests in bed, on a table in the evening, on a knee in the garden, to riffle through the old-fashioned random access structures of magazines, indexes, anthologies, can become reactionary when the web and its resources are advocated. Yet if I was the librarian of a crowded school, with limited space and conflicting claims on a diminishing budget, I would welcome the gift of a hundred classic titles a little coolly, knowing that at most five or six would be borrowed each term. Five or six might be a sufficient beginning; but if I was offered the opportunity to provide pupils - at a reasonable cost - with the huge resources of a major library, via a cable and a screen, I would repeat to myself the wisdom of Lampedusa's Prince: we must change to stay the same. And it is we who must change (for the young the resource is, potentially, a given and they are changed already), by understanding what the new technology might provide and making certain that pupils are taught to use the resources in ways which result in their formulating, or reformulating, a coherent culture.

Chances are that, if they can find connections between Larkin and Auden, Auden and Byron, Byron and Milton, Milton and Spenser, Spenser and Chaucer, they will propose for themselves, without too much prompting, the enabling continuities which some of us were taught, carrying home satchels full of books to prove what we had been told by our teachers. If new readers look forward, beyond Larkin, even if they make their way (as students often do) through secondary literature, they will find themselves at Walcott (via his astounding essay on Larkin), at Goodison, Harrison, and then at Brathwaite and the more radical figures; or at Marianne Moore and Williams, Bishop and Olson and Oppen. We are told that this is an age of TV channel-hopping, each viewer fingering the remote control and constructing, from fragments of speech and imagery gathered, a unique sequence with its particular emphases and omissions. Is it an age in which the reader can choose to move from text to text, eagerly, impatiently, rather than persist from beginning to end? Are Spenser's gobbets the closest most new readers will get to The Faerie Queene? Perhaps: but this too is a way of reading, a mode of discovery. The triumph of metonymy is not necessarily the end of literacy or of literature. Some might argue that it is less near the end than much that passes for academic critical discourse in the universities today. Fuelled by enthusiasm and accelerated by the weird synergies of the electronic medium, it could be closer to a beginning than an end.

It's all a question of how pupils learn to read, and once they can read, how they learn to explore. If for many younger people the screen has replaced the printed page, the screen carries text, and all the great texts are available there. Should PN Review be available on the web? Of course it should.

This item is taken from PN Review 123, Volume 25 Number 1, September - October 1998.

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