Esther’s Space- journey through my life

February 7, 2008

The Metaphor of the Keep

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 9:10 am

Since class I have been trying very hard to extend the metaphor of the keep-as-canon, and what it’s changes represent.

Like we discussed in class, originally, the keep was meant as a place of refuge for the lord of a castle in the event of a battle. Interestingly, as the world situation changed, keeps did not become obsolete, rather, “Even after the military importance of castles changed, keeps were still being built. The role of the keep changed from a last resort stronghold to only a lord’s private residence or chamber.” (according to castles-of-britain.com)

Working with the metaphor, the keep (canon) was designed as place of safety for the highest social classes, and even after they became irrelevant militarily, they continued to serve only the aristocrats. This makes sense, since like Ryan mentioned in class and Kathleen Fitzpatrick talks about in the article for next week (I peeked), literacy is historically limited, to say the least. According to 2001 UNESCO stats, there are currently 1 billion illiterate people in the world, roughly 25% of the total population. This number is still pretty high, considering all of the programs and pushes for world literacy. Because we associate literacy with opportunity– and the connection is not coincidental.

What I think we’re experiencing now is a literacy that is possible without being rooted in the canon, despite the nostalgic value we place in the institution of literature. In Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, by the time Holly goes to visit the keep, it has been re-decorated to simulate it’s original appearance, but the purpose has shifted drastically. In many ways, it is now nearly meaningless, because it has lost it’s previous position of importance and has been reduced to a place that can be explored by anyone.

This brings me to to my latest topic of interest, recent books being published that we would classify as literarily meritless, based on our nostalgia of the position and meaning of The Book. What does it mean when a book does not have to preserve anything? Does it become empty or does it fill with other things.  Or, does it fill with ‘low culture’ instead of preserving the ideals, hopes, and dreams of the aristocracy?

While everyone in developed countries has access to books (via the public library system whoot whoot), an alarming number (to me) do not choose to avail themselves of them.  There is however, a new genre of books that is intended for an generally non-reading audience.  These new books are written by and printed for a segment of the population that is not wealthy or does not have access to what would be called a solid education based on traditional methods.  Lifted from blackbooksdirect.com:

It doesn’t matter whether you call it urban fiction, hip-hop fiction, ghetto lit or gangster lit, this genre has had a profound impact on publishing similar to the way that rap music did in its early days. What is significant is that a new audience for books has evolved. The material may be a little crude or harsh sometimes, but many find it to be true to the experience that it depicts. 

As the statement asserts, this is a literary genre.  It is not Hemingway, but most importantly, it does not want to be Hemingway, or anything but what it is.  Is this a representation of what function the book will have in the future?  It will be open to the masses, representing the experiences of formerly marginalized characters in the literary tradition?  But, these books most often represent African-American or Latino characters and is set primarily in urban settings.  So, it is meant for a very niche market.  I just checked the NYTimes bestseller list, and Stephen King and Janet Evanovich are dominating, and I didn’t find a single book that would be considered ‘urban fiction’.

So, it doesn’t appear that the book has died.   The book has changed, however, in who it is for and whose story it represents, but it has also remained stoically a place of honor, a place where great ideas are preserved.  Perhaps what we are experiencing is an expansion of the function of The Book in the Information Age.

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