The Computer Key To Literary Insight

`THE Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and The Arts,'' by Richard A. Lanham, is a collection of 10 academic essays on the power of the personal computer for reforming the study of great literature. But whether Lanham's book is read on printed pages or on the screen of a Macintosh, this upbeat hymn to the PC ultimately denigrates the writers, students, and teachers those PCs are intended to serve.

Lanham's thesis is simple: The ``academy'' (the world of professional students and scholars) is suffocating the words of Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer with the pages on which they are printed. Paper, he contends, makes words static and dead, trapped in an order and arrangement assigned them by some irrelevant publisher.

In order to set the great texts of Western society free, they must be digitized, downloaded, and displayed on the most up-to-date networked workstations. The word must be made electronic, so contemporary students and scholars can change type style and layout, build them into multimedia presentations, and generally play with them in a way that was once reserved for authors.

These are strong ideas in anybody's book, but stronger still to be coming from a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles' writing program who has taught the academic canon for more than 30 years.

Using computers equipped with other people's texts for self-expression is a key idea that Lanham returns to again and again. He would have us believe that electronic enlightenment is just a keystroke away, available to anybody with a good word processor and a CD-ROM of literature's greatest hits.

Lanham doesn't seem to understand that the greatness of Milton and Shakespeare doesn't derive from their typography or the images publishers chose to grace the covers of these texts. Great literature is great literature, no matter what type style is used to print it.

To be fair, the real focus of ``The Electronic Word'' is not the words themselves, but the ``academy'' in which they are taught. Lanham's view of technology-as-savior seems dated and unrealistically optimistic. Today's university departments are bogged down by rhetoric and politics, not technology. Schools that have brought the electronic word into their curricula have sometimes found it a conduit for electronic plagiarism, digital harassment, and malicious hacking. On today's politically charged and politically correct campuses, the bytes often bring bedlam.

Indeed, the real value of ``The Electronic Word'' is Lanham's discussion of scholarship and copyright, which is clear, cogent, and outlines a current dilemma for the university. With academic electronic mailing lists traipsing up and down the Internet, printed journals are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

But who really owns the copyright, and the intellectual credit, to on-line scholarship? What is the relationship between text and hypertext? Who gets the royalties. Who gets tenure - the writers, or the programmers? What will happen to ``publish or perish'' when a text is created on-line, electronically circulated, and continually updated, never gracing the paper page?

Lanham raises more questions than he can answer, but their ramifications should be considered.

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