“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.” You might recognise the opening lines of Franz Kafka`s novella Metamorphosis: these are some of the most famous opening lines in literature, their simple and factual nature increasing the impact of what they convey. Yet every translation of Kafka`s 1915 masterpiece – and there are very many – starts differently. Kafka wrote in German, and the words he used were ‘Ungeheuren Ungeziefer’ which have no literal English translation. Thus, depending on which translation you read, Gregor Samsa would wake up to find he had turned into ‘a monstrous vermin’, or ‘a monstrous cockroach’, or ‘an enormous bedbug’, or ‘a verminous insect’.
Metamorphosis has now found a new translator, and the language is the newest language of all, Virtual Reality (VR). The Prague Film School, with funding from the Goethe Institute, has turned the book into a VR experience. You put on the headset, and you become Gregor Samsa, flat on your back with six flailing stick-like limbs. Later, your antennae come into view, and you find yourself in a drab bedroom, but it has a mirror, and that shows the horror of your transformation. You hear the banging on the door as your family entreats you to let them in…
Is this the future of literature? Are we going to stop reading and, instead, start seeing? This is a metamorphosis we hadn’t bargained for. The Economist reports that at Boston College they are working on a VR Ulysses. Ulysses? A book which is famous for its use of language, for its use of stream-of-consciousness, its playful parodies and puns, its rich characters, its Irish humour? Ulysses is regarded universally as one of the greatest of literary works, and they will now make it into a VR experience?
Perhaps I am old-fashioned, because I have problems with audio books too. Many people like them for their convenience: they are hands-free and thus ideal for travel, or while running or at the gym. My problem with them is The Voice: the voice you hear doing the reading. However good the reader, however nuanced and expressive his or her speech, the book gets pinned down to the one person reading it, while when we ourselves read a book, each and every one of us will read it differently – our pacing and phrasing (in our mind, of course) will bear our own individual stamp. After all, the joy of reading a book by yourself is that each one of us interprets it our own way. The author may well describe the character and setting; he may do that too with the scenery, but in spite of that, how and what I see will be quite different from the way you will.
Now comes a dampener. The writer Michael Harris recently made a frightening discovery: “I have forgotten how to read.” He gathers up courage to say this to a fellow writer, “Yes,” the other writer says, “I have too. Everybody has.” They say this because of the Internet and the digital technologies that surround us. Our attention spans have got shorter; we are impatient of delays (‘How slow this download is!’); worse, we read for a purpose – to get information, to check facts, and also to share what we read. Before WhatsApp and email, did we have this fixation with sharing? We didn`t for the very good reason that there was no technology for it. If we read a good book or an excellent column, we thought, “I must tell my friend/brother/sister/children about it.” Now we WhatsApp it. And what we WhatsApp are videos and jokes and short snippets of columns and opinions, not whole books because we ourselves don’t have time to read them.
Reading a book was immersive in a very different way from the immersiveness of VR technology, which leaves nothing to your imagination. Reading was also an experience needing solitude, or if not solitude, the ability to isolate yourself from your surroundings. Reading may be a comparatively recent phenomenon because the printing press is only 550 years old (a drop in human evolution) and reading may not be ‘natural’ to the human brain as recent research has shown: our ancestors relied on visual and audio signals for survival from predators for much of human history; if they were concentrating on stories written on stone tablets or such like, they would have been eaten up! So the brain was made for short attention spans, to keep flitting from one visual/audio signal to another in order to survive.
That may well be so, but I think – and I hope you agree – that the art of reading, to take us into worlds beyond what we knew and experienced, was a massive step in our evolution into civilized beings. That means reading not just for a purpose – that`s for text books and self-help books – but reading for the sake of reading. Does the short attention span brought in by online reading and VR mean we are taking a step back in our evolution?