The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Ageby Birkerts
In The Gutenberg Elegies, nationally renowned critic Sven Birkerts powerfully argues that we are living in a state of intellectual emergency - an emergency caused by our willingness to embrace new technologies at the expense of the printed word. As we rush to get "on line," as we make the transition from book to screen, says Birkerts, we are turning against some of… See more details below
In The Gutenberg Elegies, nationally renowned critic Sven Birkerts powerfully argues that we are living in a state of intellectual emergency - an emergency caused by our willingness to embrace new technologies at the expense of the printed word. As we rush to get "on line," as we make the transition from book to screen, says Birkerts, we are turning against some of the core premises of humanism - indeed, we are putting the idea of individualism itself under threat. The printed page and the circuit driven information technologies are not kindred - for Birkerts they represent fundamentally opposed forces. In their inevitable confrontation our deepest values will be tested. Birkerts begins his exploration from the reader's perspective, first in several highly personal accounts of his own passion for the book, then in a suite of essays that examines what he calls "the ulterior life of reading." Against this, Birkerts sets out the contours of the transformed landscape. In his highly provocative essay "Into the Electronic Millenium" and in meditations on CD-ROM, hypertext, and audio books, he plumbs the impact of emerging technologies on the once stable reader-writer exchange. He follows these with a look at the changing climate of criticism and literary practice. He concludes with a blistering indictment of what he sees as our willingness to strike a Faustian pact with a seductive devil.
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The Gutenberg Elegies
The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age
By Sven Birkerts
Faber and Faber, Inc.Copyright © 1994 Sven Birkerts
All rights reserved.
IT WAS VIRGINIA WOOLF who started me thinking about thinking again, set me to weighing the relative merits of the abstract analytical mode against the attractions of a more oblique and subjective approach. The comparison was ventured for interest alone. Abstract analysis has been closed to me for some time — I find I can no longer chase the isolated hare. Problems and questions seem to come toward me in clusters. They appear inextricably imbedded in circumstance and I cannot pry them loose to think about them. Nor can I help factoring in my own angle of regard. All is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do. It is a complex narrative proposition, and I am as interested in the variables of the process as I am in the outcome. I am an essayist, it seems, and not a philosopher.
I have had these various distinctions in mind for some time now, but only as a fidgety scatter of inklings. The magnet that pulled them into a shape was Woolfs classic essay, A Room of One's Own. Not the what of it, but the how. Reading the prose, I confronted a paradox that pulled me upright in my chair. Woolfs ideas are, in fact, few and fairly obvious — at least from our historical vantage. Yet the thinking, the presence of animate thought on the page, is striking. How do we sort that? How can a piece of writing have simple ideas and still infect the reader with the excitement of its thinking? The answer, I'd say, is that ideas are not the sum and substance of thought; rather, thought is as much about the motion across the water as it is about the stepping stones that allow it. It is an intricate choreography of movement, transition, and repose, a revelation of the musculature of mind. And this, abundantly and exaltingly, is what I find in Woolf's prose. She supplies the context, shows the problem as well as her relation to it. Then, as she narrates her growing engagement, she exposes something more thrilling and valuable than any mere concept could be. She reveals how incidental experience can encounter the receptive sensibility and activate the mainspring of creativity.
I cannot cite enough text here to convince you of my point, but I can suggest the flavor of her musing, her particular way of intertwining the speculative with the reportorial. Woolf has, she informs us at the outset, agreed to present her views on the subject of women and fiction. In the early pages of her essay she rehearses her own perplexity. She is a writer looking for an idea. What she does is not so very different from the classic college freshman maneuver of writing a paper on the problem she is having writing a paper. But Woolf is Woolf, and her stylistic verve is unexcelled:
Here then I was (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please — it is not a matter of any importance) sitting on the banks of a river a week or two ago in fine October weather, lost in thought. That collar I have spoken of, women and fiction, the need of coming to some conclusion on a subject that raises all sorts of prejudices and passions, bowed my head to the ground. To the right and left bushes of some sort, golden and crimson, glowed with color, even it seemed burned with the heat, of fire. On the further bank willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders. The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been. There one might have sat the dock round lost in thought. Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it, until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one's line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating.
Soon enough, Woolf will rise and attempt to cross a patch of lawn, only to encounter a zealous beadle, who will not only shoo her back toward authorized turf, but will initiate her reverie on male power and privilege. This is her triumph: the trust in serendipity, which proves, when unmasked, to be an absolute faith in the transformative powers of the creative intellect. A Room of One's Own, whatever it says about women, men, writing, and society, is also a perfect demonstration of what might be called "magpie aesthetics." Woolf is the bricoleuse, cobbling with whatever is to hand; she is the flâneuse, redeeming the slight and incidental by creating the context of its true significance. She models another path for mind and sensibility, suggests procedures that we might consider implementing for ourselves now that the philosophers, the old lovers of truth, have followed the narrowing track of abstraction to the craggy places up above the timberline.
By now the astute reader will have picked up on my game — that I am interested not only in celebrating Woolfs cunningly sidelong approach, but that I am trying, in my own ungainly way, to imitate it. Woolf had her "collar" (women and fiction) thrust upon her; I have wriggled into mine — let's call it reading and meaning — of my own volition. I know that I face an impossible task. Who can hope to say anything conclusive on so vast a subject? But I opted for vastness precisely because it would allow me to explore this unfamiliar essayistic method. A method predicated not upon conclusiveness but upon exploratory digressiveness; a method which proposes that thinking is not simply utilitarian, but can also be a kind of narrative travel that allows for picnics along the way.
I invoke Woolf as the instigating presence. Her example sets the key signature for an inquiry into the place of reading and sensibility in what is becoming an electronic culture. Within the scheme I have in mind, Woolf stands very much at one limit. Indeed, her work is an emblem for some of the very things that are under threat in our age: differentiated subjectivity, reverie, verbal articulation, mental passion ...
Before I go on, I must make a paradoxical admission: I was spurred to read A Room of One's Own by watching a televised adaptation of the book. On the program, Eileen Atkins, playing the part of Woolf, soliloquized for a full hour. Her address, supposedly directed at an audience of women at Girton College, was composed of extracted passages from the text. Armed with minimal props and a rather extraordinary repertoire of gestures, Atkins held forth. And I, wedged into my corner of the couch, was mesmerized. By the acting, sure, but more by the sheer power and beauty of the spoken word. Here, without seeming archaic or excessively theatrical, was a language such as one never hears — certainly not on TV. I was riveted. And as soon as the show was over I went to find the book.
A Room of One's Own, I'm happy to say, stood up to its television rendition — indeed, galloped right past it. And it has spent many nights since on my bedside table. But the paradox remains: Just as Woolf's charged prose shows us what is possible with language, so it also forces us to face the utter impoverishment of our own discourse. And as we seek to explain how it is that flatness and dullness carry the day, we have to lay at least part of the blame at the feet of our omnipotent media systems. And yet, and yet ... here I found myself reintroduced to the power of Woolf by the culprit technology itself.
This is the sort of thing I tend to think about. I ponder the paradox — stare at it as if it were an object on the desk in front of me. I stare and wait for ideas and intuitions to gather, but I do not unpack my instruments of reason. For, as I see it, this little triad — of me, TV, and book — potentially touches every aspect of our contemporary lives and our experience of meaning. To think about the matter analytically would be to break the filaments of the web.
I will therefore set down what amount to a few anecdotal provocations and go wandering about in their midst. All of my points of focus have, as you will see, some connection to my immediate daily experience; they are embedded in the context of my life. But they also have a discernible link. For I have been going around for quite some time with a single question — a single imprecisely general question — in my mind. The interrogation mark has been turned upside down and, to follow Woolf, lowered into the waters of my ordinary days. It is always there, and, from time to time, for whatever reason, it captures the attention of some swimming thing. I feel a tug: The paper is produced, the note gets scribbled, and the hook is thrown back out.
The question, again, is, "What is the place of reading, and of the reading sensibility, in our culture as it has become?" And, like most of the questions I ponder seriously, this one has been around long enough to have become a conspicuous topographical feature of my mental landscape. In my lifetime I have witnessed and participated in what amounts to a massive shift, a wholesale transformation of what I think of as the age-old ways of being. The primary human relations — to space, time, nature, and to other people — have been subjected to a warping pressure that is something new under the sun. Those who argue that the very nature of history is change — that change is constant — are missing the point. Our era has seen an escalation of the rate of change so drastic that all possibilities of evolutionary accommodation have been short-circuited. The advent of the computer and the astonishing sophistication achieved by our electronic communications media have together turned a range of isolated changes into something systemic. The way that people experience the world has altered more in the last fifty years than in the many centuries preceding ours. The eruptions in the early part of our century — the time of world wars and emergent modernity — were premonitions of a sort. Since World War II we have stepped, collectively, out of an ancient and familiar solitude and into an enormous web of imponderable linkages. We have created the technology that not only enables us to change our basic nature, but that is making such change all but inevitable. This is why I take reading — reading construed broadly — as my subject. Reading, for me, is one activity that inscribes the limit of the old conception of the individual and his relation to the world. It is precisely where reading leaves off, where it is supplanted by other modes of processing and transmitting experience, that the new dispensation can be said to begin.
None of this, I'm afraid, will seem very obvious to the citizen of the late twentieth century. If it did, there would be more outcry, more debate. The changes are keyed to generational transitions in computational power; they come in ghostly increments, but their effect is to alter our lives on every front. Public awareness of this expresses itself obliquely, often unconsciously, as nostalgia — a phenomenon which the media brokers are all too aware of. They hurry to supply us with the necessary balm: media productions and fashions that harken back reassuringly to eras that we perceive as less threatening, less cataclysmic. But this is another subject. We are, on a conscious level, blinkered to change. We adapt to the local disturbances. We train ourselves to computer literacy, find ways to speed up our performance, accept higher levels of stress as a kind of necessary tax burden, but by and large we ignore the massive transformations taking place in the background. This is entirely understandable. The present hastens us forward, at every moment sponging up what preceded it. Only when we wrench ourselves free and perform the ceremony of memory do we grasp the extent of the change. In our lives, in the world. Then indeed we may ask ourselves where we are headed and what is the meaning of this great metamorphosis of the familiar.
I was recently reading a novel by Graham Swift entitled Ever After. At one point, the narrator, an adult looking back upon his youth, recalls how he used to race on his bike to a private lookout post from which he could watch the great steam engines go hurtling past. Calling upon the privileged hindsight of his narrator, Swift writes:
Between Aldermaston Wharf and Midgham, where the Reading-to-Newbury line clipped the side of the hill and entered a short cutting — a favorite spot for these enthralled vigils, so limply known as "train-spotting" — I could look out on a vista which might have formed the model for one of those contrived scenes in a children's encyclopedia, depicting the theme of "Old and New." River, canal and railway line were all in view. At a single moment it would have been perfectly possible to see, in the background, the old watermill on the Kennet, with a horse working the field before it; in the middle distance, a barge on the canal; and in the foreground, a train racing for the cutting; while no less than three road bridges provided a fair opportunity for some gleaming motor car (complete with an inanely grinning couple in the front seats) to be brought simultaneously into the picture.
I must have seen it once — many times — that living palimpsest. And no doubt I should have been struck by some prescient, elegiac pang at the sight of these great expresses steaming only to their own oblivion, and taking with them a whole lost age.
I found the passage a compelling analogy of our own situation, only instead of modes of transport in the palimpsest I would place book, video monitor, and any of the various interactive hypertext technologies now popping up in the marketplace. Looking up from Swift's page, I wondered what it would be like to look back upon our own cultural moment from a vantage of, say, thirty years. Are we not in a similar transitional phase, except that what is roaring by, destined for imminent historical oblivion, is the whole familiar tradition of the book? All around us, already in place, are the technologies that will render it antiquated.
In the fall of 1992 I taught a course called "The American Short Story" to undergraduates at a local college. I assembled a set of readings that I thought would appeal to the tastes of the average undergraduate and felt relatively confident. We would begin with Washington Irving, then move on quickly to Hawthorne, Poe, James, and Jewett, before connecting with the progressively more accessible works of our century. I had expected that my students would enjoy "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," be amused by its caricatures and ghost-story element. Nothing of the kind. Without exception they found the story over-long, verbose, a chore. I wrote their reactions off to the fact that it was the first assignment and that most students would not have hit their reading stride yet. When we got to Hawthorne and Poe I had the illusion that things were going a bit better.
Excerpted from The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. Copyright © 1994 Sven Birkerts. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
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