The Fate of the Notion of Canon in the Electronic Age/1/

Presented to the Spring 1994 Meeting of the Westar Institute

Robert M. Fowler
Baldwin-Wallace College
Berea, Ohio 44017


What happens when text moves from page to screen? First, the digital text becomes unfixed and interactive. The reader can change it, become writer. The center of Western culture since the Renaissance--really since the great Alexandrian editors of Homer--the fixed, authoritative, canonical text, simply explodes into the ether. (Lanham, The Electronic Word, 31)

In the world of electronic writing, there will be no texts that everyone must read. There will only be texts that more or fewer readers choose to examine in more or less detail. The idea of the great, inescapable book belongs to the age of print that is now passing. (Bolter, Writing Space, 240)

The idea of a relatively stable [literary] canon made sense in a culture dominated by printed books. The canon was also appropriate to a centralized educational system, in which everyone studied the same subjects and the same texts in order to be introduced into the standards of cultural life. But the notion of a standard has now collapsed, and the collapse is mirrored in the shift from the printed to the electronic writing space, in which a stable canon of works and authors is meaningless. (Bolter, Writing Space, 237)


1. Reactions and Reasons
2. Hypertext
3. Conclusion
4. Notes
5. Works Consulted


The publishing history of this essay is a remarkable example of the uneasy relationship between print and electronic culture. This essay was written early in 1994 and was presented at the Spring 1994 meeting of the Westar Institute, at Santa Rosa, CA. Shortly thereafter it was accepted for publication in Westar's print journal Forum. I secured the blessing of the editor of Forum to post a copy of the essay in cyberspace, where it has been available since the summer of 1994. The essay was finally published in print in the spring of 1996, but due to Westar's delayed publication schedule, the date of publication was March-June 1993 (sic; Forum 9 [March-June 1993]: 151-172). Thus the essay was written and presented in 1994, posted in cyberspace in 1994, and published in print in 1996, but with a 1993 publication date!

I am grateful to Christi Klein, my research assistant, who translated this essay into HTML.