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Orwellian Kindles, Moretti and Marketing in the Margins

February 26, 2011

This Rob Horning essay offers an astute appeal to the staunch traditionalist impulse that seems to define the majority of bibliophiles. While offering an interesting asides on the E-Reader as the saviour of the long-forgotten out-of-print book, or as facilitator of greater access to text and promotor of the act of reading, Horning’s account reinforces a notion of publishers as Merchants of Culture of a very particular order.

The turn to Moretti in an analysis of the digital text is a judicious move. Moretti, a figurehead of the desacralizing school of quantitive literary analysis, offers to critical theory models such Graphs, Maps, Trees as well as numbers as substitutes for the traditional selective procedures that structure a literary canon. Of course the delight of Moretti’s work is precisely in its demythologising of literary criticism but, as Horning points out, the rather darker side of the numerical and quantitative approach to literary works is that these are much more conducive to the promotional algorithms and recommendations of such cultural megaliths as Google Books and Amazon. Is the ‘linguistic turn’ being replaced by the ‘numerical turn’? Of course this is not such an enormous paradigm shift for publishers.

The irony of Amazon’s deletion of Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 is as delicious as it is alarming. Yet the E-reader as that which reads the consumer is itself a rather Orwellian prospect. The fact that Amazon keeps a record of the contents of every kindle is more than mildly disturbing. From each E-Reader, Amazon can mine information as to how long it takes for an individual to read a given book, which ones they have read and so on. For Horning:

‘publishers will be able to draw from trends in this rich data for its editorial decision-making, exploiting connections this information reveals among various demographics in the reading public, calibrating their lists to actual reader behavior with more precision than dumb sales data once allowed. Such rapid responsiveness can trigger a feedback loop that precludes the possibility of spontaneous, unexpected desires, fashioning a smoothly functioning market sealed off from vital disruptions. Readers will be sealed in the tombs of their revealed preferences. To capture the feeling of discovery and possibility again, they will have to look somewhere other than books’.

Publishers have not stated their position with regard to infiltrating the text with dynamic advertising, or individually tailored paratexts, yet all prognoses seem to suggest a future embedding of the commercial sector into the very form/content of the text…though in an afterthought, and to sidestep the seemingly-inevitable apocalyptic conflusion …here, by the Power of Digital ….is one of many excerpts from Dickens’s Bleak House that contemporary publishers have yet willfully refused to reproduce… 🙂


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