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Literature and the Internet: A Guide for Students, Teachers, and Scholars

Author: Stephanie Browner, Stephen Pulsford, Richard Sears
Publisher: New York & London: Garland, 2000
Review Published: October 2002

 REVIEW 1: Pramod K. Nayar
 REVIEW 2: Stacy Gillis
 REVIEW 3: Betsy Huang
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Stephanie Browner

Literature and the Internet: A Guide for Students, Teachers, and Scholars, written by Stephanie Browner, Stephen Pulsford, and Richard Sears, is a concise and practical guide for serious literary researchers and students who possess varying degrees of knowledge about the Internet. The book not only provides clear explanations for navigating the web, but also considers broader questions such as "why anyone should wish to use the web," or more specifically, "why should a serious-minded scholar or reader waste precious time exploring a frustrating, overloaded virtual universe of advertising, hype, doubtful amusement, and trivia?" (1). These questions constitute one of the many positive qualities of this guide; throughout the book, the authors not only discuss basic Internet terminologies and functionalities in detail, but also weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the web to literary research at every turn.

The book is divided into three sections to facilitate its usefulness to novice and sophisticated Internet users alike. Part One, authored by Richard Sears, consists of chapters one through five, and is aimed at all Internet users -- students, scholars, and even the average user not necessarily interested in literary research. This part is strictly practical and, as the authors say, "deals most consciously with the actual experience of using the Internet and is neither particularly academic nor especially theoretical" (vii). In this section, the reader will find definitions, terminologies, descriptions of web functions, and an extensive annotated bibliography of literary websites.

Sears is always mindful of explaining how Internet versions of books and libraries differ from their physical and material counterparts. In Chapter One, he identifies four essential differences between Internet texts and texts in actual books (for this is the comparison with which most literary scholars are concerned) -- searchability, connectedness to other texts, collectibility, and reproducibility -- and discusses each in detail. Chapter Two offers step-by-step explanations on how to perform searches on the web, and details differences among browsers and search engines. Chapter Three provides brief descriptions of different kinds of literary websites, ranging from academic and non-academic sites to fan sites and commercial sites. Perhaps what is most useful about this chapter is the classification of the vast number of sites online into categories based on the sites' target audiences; this enables users to quickly identify which types of sites best suit their needs.

Part One concludes with chapters four and five, which are essentially two extensive bibliographies of literary websites. These are not arbitrarily selected sites that the editors found interesting or of merit in some way; rather, Sears boasts that "virtually every literary resource on the entire Internet is within one click from some item included" (34). As such, it is not just a "sampling" of useful literature-related sites; rather, it is "a gateway to the literary Internet" and enables "a full-scale exploration from which every area of the superstructure, even obscure corners, is in sight" (34). Field-testing this claim fully would take a lifetime, but a few days' worth of site-hopping using the list has left me travel-weary but impressed with the vast range of sites to be visited. These two chapters may be worth the price of the book itself for users who don't have the time nor stamina to sort through and evaluate each site for themselves. Sophisticated users, however, may want to visit the sites and evaluate the contents for themselves.

Part Two, authored by Stephanie Browner, consists of chapters six through eight, and focuses on the ways in which the Internet impacts the field of literary studies on the pedagogical as well as the scholarly front. Chapter Six outlines ways to evaluate sites -- a matter of vast importance, since those of us who have worked with students on how to evaluate web sources know how indiscriminate students can be when searching for secondary sources. In Chapter 7, Browner offers useful suggestions for ways to integrate Internet research into literary pedagogy, including strategies for teaching Internet skills as part of a literature course and for teaching in a wired classroom. Chapter 8 focuses on the complexities involved in creating, transmitting, and manipulating electronic texts. For those who use and peruse electronic texts regularly but don't really know how they are created, this chapter provides clear explanations of the processes involved, and elaborates on the differences between plain ASCII and marked up texts, and among markup languages such as HTML, SGML, and XML.

Browner obviously revels in the ways in which the Internet can enrich literary studies. She sees the Internet as more than just a research tool. Noting that "teaching lounges are rare these days," she sees the Internet as a virtual community of teachers where instructional resources and ideas can be easily shared. However, she also sounds a cautionary note that Internet enthusiasts tend to tout its possibilities without regard for its limitations. She warns that the sheer number of available resources on the Internet can be its biggest liability because of the discriminatory burden it places on the average user, especially students and budding scholars relatively unschooled in the process of evaluating sources. She also reminds the teacher that "technology itself does not teach students" (144). This is a point well taken, for while the transformation from "reader" to "user" suggests a movement from a passive to a more active role, one can also argue that "users" often merely follow links established by others and are not really actively engaged at all. Browner ultimately see the Internet as a tool that promotes active learning, and I agree; however, I would like to see more emphasis on how instructors can make the "active" aspects of web usage apparent to students so that they are truly conscious of their own hand in their learning.

Chapter 9, written by Stephen Pulsford, offers a good introduction to current theories on the implications and ramifications of the Internet on traditional organizational structures within literary studies. Pulsford traces current speculations on how the Internet will impact the production and dissemination of knowledge in the future, and discusses the ways in which the Internet, reflecting the poststructuralist theories of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, challenges conventional notions of the author, the reader, the text, and the canon. This subject has, of course, spawned an entire field of inquiry, led by the theories of George Landow and J. David Bolter, on whom Pulsford's discussion relies heavily. Moving through numerous views on what is "new" and what isn't on the Internet, Pulsford speculates that "hypertext promises to bring about real revaluations of the form and status of the text" (174). Pulsford also cites Michael Camille's argument about the erosion of other senses under the primacy of visuality when a text is presented electronically, and discusses the ways in which it changes how readers experience texts. Drawing on the work of Peter Lyman, Pulsford also argues that the relative ease of publishing on the web poses serious challenges to the three institutions on which he believes the "marketplace of ideas" relies: libraries, publishing, and copyright law. He speculates that Internet publications may eventually do away with traditional publishing because "the concept of a digital library, a central repository of commercially produced works, with free public access, analogous to current public libraries full of print materials, would completely undermine any possibility for a publisher to sell a work in any other way" (182). He also notes that "the feasibility of Internet publication challenges [traditional] evaluation criteria and highlights their unreliability" (183). These challenges expose the politics of publication and force us to rethink not only the ways in which we produce and disseminate information, but also how we evaluate the authority of a text when publication no longer means that it has undergone some form of peer review or editorial process.

Each chapter, regardless of its practical, pedagogical, or theoretical approach, considers the implications of the Internet on literature as a discipline. Chapter Three, for example, concludes with a brief discussion of how the Internet challenges -- and even breaks -- traditional literary hierarchies. The lack of stable evaluative standards for websites is clearly a matter of import for the authors; when they are not discussing the problem explicitly, it emerges in their qualifications (e.g., "Items of exceptional merit or interest [however those qualities are defined] . . ." [34]). This drives home the point that the nature of the Internet confounds any absolutist notions of standards altogether. In Chapter 7, Browner concludes with questions surrounding the increasing fluidity of "authoritative" and "definitive" editions, and the challenges the Internet poses to the notion of canonicity. These questions may border on the hackneyed for sophisticated web users (though they are still hotly debated in the field of cyberculture), but they will inspire novice users to consider the impact of the Internet on traditional textual media. The authors themselves steer clear of offering clear-cut solutions (since each of these questions can -- and has -- generated book-length studies); rather, they remain objective in their presentation of all sides of each debate, and direct their discussions toward the practical purpose of showing who may benefit most from which web resources.

The authors seem to have neglected some pertinent issues in their otherwise admirably comprehensive coverage -- namely, plagiarism (an increasingly widespread problem in undergraduate literature courses), and the effects of visual aesthetics the Internet introduces to a traditionally text-based discipline. While Browner acknowledges the fact that the Internet facilitates plagiarism, she glosses over the issue in one paragraph. An updated edition of this guide should address this issue more extensively. Another issue that deserves more attention is the aesthetic dimension that the Internet adds to the study of literature. Browner points out in Chapter 7 that poets have always "[created] texts . . . verbally and visually" (143) (Walt Whitman is the specific example she uses). Since the Internet introduces new ways of manipulating the visual qualities of texts, issues such as the popularity of certain sites because of their aesthetic appeal or user-friendly interfaces become matters for consideration, and warrant further elaboration. I also found myself wishing for better cross-referencing between chapters, especially between the bibliography in chapters 4 and 5, authored by Sears, and the subsequent chapters written by Browner and Pulsford. For example, Browner in Chapter 7 mentions an NEH-funded teaching project on Romanticism, but does not provide the URL for it. To visit the site, I had to look for it Chapter Four's bibliography -- a step that would have been unnecessary if this guide were online, for the online version would almost certainly provide a link to the Romanticism website under discussion.

For a relatively compact book, the authors manage to provide a sizeable amount of practical information as well as numerous thought-provoking questions. They remind us that "grasping the whole [Internet] is almost out of the question, but using it effectively is not," and this guide provides excellent tips and strategies on how to get the most out of the web in an efficient manner. The book can also be assigned as a primary text in an introductory class on cyberculture and hypermedia. Chapter 9 can easily stand alone as an introductory essay on the effects of electronic texts on traditional print publications. Novice and sophisticated users interested in literature and literary research will find this book a valuable desk reference -- for the time being, since the authors themselves describe the Internet as "a river that changes perpetually" (34).

Bolter, J. David. Writing Space: The Computer in the History of Literacy. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1990.

Camille, Michael. "Sensations of the Page: Imaging Technologies and Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts." The Iconic Page in Manuscript, Print, and Digital Culture. Ed. George Bornstein and Theresa Tinkle. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Lyman, Peter. "What Is a Digital Library? Technology, Intellectual Property, and the Public Interest." Daedalus 125.4 (Fall 1996): 1-33.

Betsy Huang:
Betsy Huang is a doctoral student and instructor in the Department of English and the College Writing Program at the University of Rochester, as well as an adjunct instructor in the Humanities Department at the Eastman School of Music.  <byhg@mail.rochester.edu>

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