Friday, July 11, 2008

Revisiting The Gutenberg Elegies

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age
By Sven Birkerts
Faber & Faber, $15.00 paper
ISBN 978-0865479579

A decade ago, I read a book that changed me on a subatomic level. That book is Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies. I recently revisited the book on my shelf when I was doing a thorough summer cleaning.

Birkerts, a lecturer at Harvard and Director of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, classifies himself as an essayist and literary critic. He has written for an astonishing number of top magazines and journals in American letters: The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, and Esquire, to name a few. He is also the author of the previous books, My Sky Blue Trades, Reading Life, and Readings.

In The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts writes, “…the greater part of what I do is read and write about books.” He came to be this kind of writer through fate, hearing the call to a life of letters at an early age. He began writing in elementary school and was rewarded with encouragement. “It is easy enough in retrospect to see a book as a screen, a shield, an escape, but at the time there was just the magic—the startling and renewable discovery that a page covered with black markings could, with a slight mental exertion, be converted into an environment, an inward depth populated with characters and animated by diverse excitements.” He quickly found himself possessed by “the mania,” walls of books, piles of journals, and papers everywhere.

Considering oneself a reader is no mean feat in America where action is prized over the thinking. “[I]t is the prevalent bias in our culture,” Birkerts writes. “Doing is prized over being or thinking. Reading is something you do because it has been assigned in school, or because all other options have been exhausted.” Birkerts did not let this cultural lack of enthusiasm for reading deter him, and burned with the desire to be thought of as intelligent and well-read. By tenth grade, he was spending great amounts of time in libraries and book stores, and he did not fight the growing compulsion to be around books.

His four years of college were, in his words, misguided. Birkerts speaks of reading and studying, but still feeling a desperation in terms of figuring things out. “I worried that I might have some kind of a breakdown. I would stretch out in the dark and listen to classical music on the all-night station, waiting for the window square to lighten and my anxiety to abate.”

He begins his writing career on an impulse. He had read the work of Robert Musil, but could find very little criticism about him. “I had read the work,” he writes, “I had ideas—maybe I could write something.” He compares this moment to the proverbial light bulb going off over his head. “I sat at the desk I had built into the corner of my room and I worked. I went through the books and copied out lengthy passages I wanted to quote. I filled sheets of paper with ideas, drew connecting arrows. And then, relying on my memory of writing college papers, as well as on the example of essays I admired by writers like George Steiner, Susan Sontag, and Brodsky…I launched forth.” His feeling of success is palpable. “For, no sooner did I begin putting words on the page than I tapped a rightness and ease I had never known before.

As a critic, his criteria is simple: “The books that matter to me—and they are books of all descriptions—are those that galvanize something inside of me. I read books to read myself.”

The real meat of this book is Birkerts’ belief that we are in the midst of a cultural metamorphosis caused by electronic communications—or, that the Internet is killing reading. We have heard studies recently that reveal Americans’ lack of enthusiasm for the written word. We have also heard how reading is flourishing—the Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books is one of the hottest events of the year in the city. So what is the truth? How many people are really reading? What are they reading? Birkerts believes it is not literature and not reading as in deep thinking.

Birkerts offers an anecdote about teaching a literature class at a local college. After carefully selecting texts with student interest in mind, he is appalled to discover that students will not read anything that they have to think over or consider deeply. They want the movie version. What’s more, they cannot make it through the classic Cliffs Notes or Sparks Notes. The language used there is beyond their comprehension.

He asserts a new paradigm: people born in and after the 1970s cannot access an entire history of culture, myth and stories because the medium of language and expression is completely alien to them. “…[T]he understandings and assumptions that were formerly operative in society no longer feel valid. Things have shifted; they keep shifting. We all feel a desire for connection, for meaning, but we don’t seem to know what to connect with what, and we are utterly at sea about our place as individuals in the world at large.” Later, he makes his point clear. “Looking out at our society, we see no real leaders, no larger figures of wisdom. Not a brave new world at all, but a fearful one.”

Birkerts breaks down our postmodern plusses and minuses into two categories. The gains of postmodernity are: increased awareness of the big picture; expanded neural capacity; understanding leading to tolerance; readiness to try new things.

The losses to postmodernity illustrate a steep price for the above plusses: fragmented sense of time and loss of reverie; reduced attention span and impatience with sustained inquiry; shattered faith in institutions and explanatory narratives that shape experiences; divorce from past and history; cut off from sense of geography and community; absence of a strong vision for the future.

We need to reorient ourselves, according to Birkerts. He posits a humanistic code: we confer meaning from experience; we communicate symbolically through language; and literature holds the meaning of experience. Only in reading do we slip out of our everyday ruts and consider the higher purpose of existence, our origins and destinations. What my students think of as reading on the Internet is simply having access to a gigantic amount of information. However, much of the information is not vital, or even relevant. A student must sift and work through to glean the important nuggets of thought and idea, but few students want to take this time. The pace of life is too fast and there is little time for deep thinking. It is all snap decisions and forward momentum.

In his chapter, “The Owl Has Flown,” Birkerts discusses life before 1750. Few books were available, so people read them over and over and discussed them. After 1750, people read books, magazines and newspapers and read them once to race on to something else. Depth was sacrificed for sheer volume, with “a shift from intensive to extensive reading.” Therein lies the key. We consume information with little digestion—there is a dearth of critical and analytical thinking.

Students have trouble comprehending that it is not enough to know where to find the information, or to be able to cut and paste it into a document. They must digest it, understand it, and be able to utilize it fluently in their work. What I keep pounding into my students is that everything is connected. It is that whole global village thing—history, philosophy, current events, literature, culture, the life of the mind—all connected, all important. They must make these connections to be good students of literature, or any other subject.

Literature offers us not facts, but truths about human nature and the processes of life. Deeper, wiser people will result from reading deeply and considering ideas, so as hard as it is, we must force our students to read. Reading causes us to reconsider our lives in the light of what we learn. Therefore, it is not always a pleasant experience especially when it is assigned for class, but reading is always a necessary experience.

What is the solution? We are “a culture in which image and presentation have assumed a substantiality formerly unthinkable.” But Birkerts argues that we cannot ignore a deeper inquiry, the desire to know, to discover, to understand. It is part of who we are, so we must embrace it.

“If literature is to survive,” Birkerts says at the end of The Gutenberg Elegies, “to gain back some of the power it has ceded to terrorists and newsmakers of all descriptions, it must become dangerous. That is, it must throw up a serious challenge to the emergent status quo; it must shake and provoke people even as it leads them back toward a reconnaissance of selfhood.

I cannot track how many times I have returned to Sven Birkerts’ themes and ideas in my teaching and writing life. In this book, he develops and displays the problems and pitfalls of our American culture and the life of the mind. His writing has the clarity of a bell whose toll calls us back to what is most important: the idea, the humanistic desire to think, to analyze, to wonder. This is who we are, our true nature, and Birkerts believes we should not let technology deter us from our humanism. Computers and technology are simply tools to enhance our study, our quest to understand our world. The thinking is up to us.


  1. Whatever it is that you have to say will go unread by many simply because it is extremely difficult to read black letters on a dark blue background. Could you please "lighten up" :-)

  2. I will take care of it, and I appreciate the comment.

    Paul L. Martin


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