The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

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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 ...
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Boston 1994 Hardcover First Edition/first printing New in new jacket ISBN: 057119849X. [4to] 231p. cited material. New in dj protected against wear and tear in Brodart Archival ... Mylar. Read more Show Less

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Overview

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.

In this boldly original challenge to the new information technologies--an essential work for anyone who cares about the future of books--Birkerts shows how, in our abrupt, heedless switch from book to screen, we as a society are allowing our inner lives to be diminished.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this engaging, cautionary look at the impact of modern technology on literary tradition, critic Birkerts warns that the information superhighway poses dire challenges to the vitality of literary criticism. In 15 original essays on the art of reading and the rise of electronic communication, he contends that emerging information technologies, such as the Internet and interactive TV, will result in the erosion of language, a diminishing interest in sustained critical thought and a negligence of the traditional humanities. He explores the pleasures offered by the traditional printed page and debunks the hype surrounding new products like multimedia, audiobooks and hypertext. Birckerts writes lapidary sentences, yet his argument is idiosyncratic, often digressing from larger questions about technology's effect on the reader to personal anecdotes, lists of books he admires and difficult aesthetic ideas. In the debate over the fate of book-publishing in the information age, he offers a useful jeremiad for what he sees as a vanishing literary culture; yet his study's appeal will rest mainly with literary critics. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Birkerts, the author of three books of criticism (American Energies, LJ 6/1/92), has written a collection of 14 essays discussing the changing role of reading as "culture has begun to go through what promises to be a total metamorphosis." However, unlike Richard Lanham in his optimistic The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (LJ 1/94), Birkerts is more pessimisitic about the future of reading as seductive technologies transform the reader-writer relationship. Through these essays, the author chronicles his passionate relationship with books and ventures into considerable depth on the demise of textual traditions and values. While acknowledging that millions of readers still read books, he is particularly concerned about the loss of readers of true literature. A good complementary volume to Lanham; recommended for academic collections.-Robin P. Peek, GSLIS, Simmons Coll., Boston
Zom Zoms
Self-proclaimed bibliophile and literary critic, Birkerts writes a passionate defense of reading in today's electronic environment. By delving into his own literary history, he charts his obsession with the written word. Birkerts, the child of Latvian parents--a stoic father and a mother who loved to read to him--started his love affair young. Yet these essays are not about him so much as about the power and importance of the written word. The act of reading, especially in this age of information highways, talking books, CD-ROMs, and 500 television channels, is to him an "argument between technology and [the] soul." From the individual engaged in the act of writing to the individual who will read those words, a revolution is in full swing. This is no revelation, yet Birkerts has slowed the pace of the discussion down, the clarity of his prose clearing the table for further discussion. So he says, "Words read from a screen or written onto a screen--words which appear and disappear, even if they can be retrieved and fixed into place with a keystroke--have a different status and affect us differently from words held immobile on the accessible space of a page." "The Gutenberg Elegies" is both a celebration and a warning, a "very" important collection of essays for everyone who loves books, the reading as well as the writing of them. The stakes of his arguments could very well be our souls.
From the Publisher
"Birkerts on reading fiction is like M.F.K. Fisher on eating or Norman Maclean on fly casting. He makes you want to go do it." —The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571198498
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 11/15/1994
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.35 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays and a memoir. Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard and a member of the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars, he also edits the journal Agni, based at Boston University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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