Given my fascination with the anxious responses of (print and digital) literature, as a cultural practice, when faced with digital culture, the post by Andrea DenHoed in The New Yorker‘s section The Book Bench interested me. She discusses the recent Academy Award winner in the category Best Animated Short: William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg’s film “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” Her post–The Terrifying Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore–suggests that book writing and reading are activities best indulged in secluded places, like the house of books in the short film (library, anyone?). There, Mr Morris Lessmore lives out his days, writing his book while also tending to all the other books. DenHoed is appalled, however, at what she sees as the morals of the story: once his writing is done, Mr Lessmoore returns to the world of the living and thus reverts back to the youthful self that once entered the house of books. His “lifetime of servitude” is over. For DenHoed, the film’s main message is that a life with books is one that has to be literally out of touch with the rest of the world which has turned its attention away from bound volumes of knowledge. Even worse, books have become fetishized objects of a past that we can only access by turning away, living in seclusion. (But what of the image of the girl who flies, held up by books that soar like balloons on strings? What of the shift from black-and-white figures to color once a character comes into contact with a book?)
I want to see the short again, but it seems to me that the digital that DenHoed mentions only in passing (in a parenthetical reference to reading practices) is actually crucial. I see the film not “as a dire warning against the fetishization of books.” The film comments upon the contemporary situation of bound books in a larger sense. What of literature, writing, and reading?, it seems to say. Although in the film the material form of literature is that of the bound book, I see the film as allowing us to rethink where and how literature lives today. The dire warning that DenHoed sees, I see as a little bit of nostalgia. But if we look beyond the film itself to it as part of a larger media phenomenon, we learn that it also exists as an iPad app and will come out as a book. Instead, then, of viewing the film as an isolated site of struggle between bound paper and the (possible) loss of knowledge and pleasure that comes from reading, I find it more productive to think about what “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” can tell us about contemporary literary materiality.