Books in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Nowadays it’s difficult to survive an undergraduate education in the humanities without coming across Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Harvard University Press has released a new book on Benjamin, in case we are in danger of forgetting all those elevated, multisyllabic germanic thoughts we should be thinking when we look at, say, a coffee table art book or a poster of a painting by Klimt, Da Vinci, or Munch.


The first line is good news–people are still reading the Artwork essay. Then the blog entry turns snarky (I'm reading the Eiland and Jennings biography of Walter Benjamin right now) before venturing into simply incorrect assertions (ebooks will return literature to its "disembodied origins in the oral culture") and a not especially informative discussion of the impact of self-publishing on the publishing industry.

I don't think literary book publishing can be separated out from other forms of online reproduction. And Benjamin says almost nothing about literature in the Artwork essay. It's all about photography and cinema–about images. The big, transformative reproduction revolution in literature occurred in the 1830s with the introduction of the mass printing press. Among the literary forms that emerged from that change: the short story.

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