Time’s book critic Lev Grossman is convinced that, as the magazine’s headline announces, the digital age is reshaping literature (h/t: Daniel Green). “Literature interprets the world,” Grossman says, “but it’s also shaped by that world, and we’re living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since—well, since the early 18th century.”
The eighteenth century is significant, because according to Grossman (repeating a scholarly commonplace as if he were saying something original), the “novel in its modern form really got rolling” then:
The older theory is that the novel came of age along with the individual, and thus the novel, understood as fiction in which human character is represented and developed, owes its emergence to a political concept. This older theory has not so much been disproven as discarded. We are all cultural materialists now, at least those of us who live by received ideas.
In the American university, cultural materialism has spawned a new discipline—the history of the book. (Bibliography, the old discipline, was materialist only in its exclusive concern with how books are made and where to find them.) And what would an academic fashion be without a French auteur? Roger Chartier, a historian of the Annales school who teaches at the Collège de France, stitched together the new discipline by combining reception theory with the study of printed objects. Its purpose, he explains, is to replace the “lazy familiarity with which literary history is transformed into a pantheon of great texts” with “another project altogether,” which aims at “reinserting works, whatever they might be, into the conditions and procedures that governed their writing, their distribution and their reception. . . .”
As someone who believes that literature is shaped by material forces outside individual control, including how it is used, especially by what he calls “the political and economic powers,” Chartier is unruffled by the thought that electronic texts may replace printed books. To see into the literary future, “we must,” he says, “do two things”:
Let me illustrate. According to Chartier, the invention of the codex was fundamental and far more important than the invention of printing, because the transition from unrolling a scroll to turning a page gave the book “the form, structure, and organization it has retained up to the present.” And when discussing the history of the codex, it is ritual to point out that the new form of the book was first mentioned by Martial (14.184–92), who praised its compactness. The best of these is his epigram on a single-volume Livy:
Quem mea non totum bibliotheca capit.
In this one book whole histories are told
That once whole libraries could scarcely hold.
I am just old enough to have lived through the technological transformation of writing from manual typewriters (my father, a professor at the local junior college, picked me up a secondhand Underwood, with blank keys for typing students, when the business department purchased newer models) through impatiently humming Selectrics with changeable “typeballs” into the earliest days of word-processing on an Apple II, when preparing a typescript was much like marking up .html, and finally to the sophisticated software of today, with drag-and-drop editing, simultaneous spell-checking, automated hyphenation, and even the capacity to embed right-to-left Hebrew or Arabic into English prose. How have these transformations, these alterations in the material conditions of writing, influenced meaning?
Not at all. They have made it easier for me to complete what I set out to write. Nothing more. Ralph Marvell, who “could do charming things, if only he had known how to finish them!” would not have been saved by purchasing a typewriter, which had reached a standardized design about the same time that Wharton was writing The Custom of the Country. Ralph is destroyed by intellectual errors—by believing that a creative temperament unfitted him for business, by a bad marriage, entered into for the wrong reasons, by the conviction “how killing uncongenial work is,” and not being grateful for the support it provides his son.
When technology accompanies a cognitive revolution, then and only then does it have much chance to shape literature. The invention of printing hastened the shift from listening to silent reading, which had already been under way for a millennium, or ever since Augustine came upon Ambrose seeking out the meaning of a page with his heart. Before Gutenberg, as the historian of ideas William A. Ringler points out, “all longer fictional English narratives had been in verse.” Verse is an aid to listening; the prose novel emerged when printing made books more readily available, aiding the practice of silent reading. Meaning is produced not by the material aspects of writing, but by its intellectual conditions. And the ways human beings think, evolved over eons, are not so responsive to change.
 This view is elaborated by Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
 Roger Chartier, “The End of the Reign of the Book,” trans. Eric D. Friedman, SubStance 26 (1997): 9–11.
 Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 5.
 William A. Ringler Jr., ”Beware the Cat and the Beginnings of English Fiction,” Novel 12 (Winter 1979): 113–26.