Monday, July 6

The Gutenberg Elegies

In 1994, Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Let me just say that Mr. Birkerts was not prescient. While he groused about the computer, he never could have imagined instant messaging, text messaging, Twitter, or Facebook.

It's important to note the Mr. Birkerts was concerned about the fate of "reading," not the fate of text. Early in his book he speaks of American Short Story class he taught to undergraduates during which he wanted to introduce the students to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and others. He was surprised that his students struggled with these writers and their styles. Birkerts did spend some time with his students discussing their apparent lack of interest or ability and observes that "they were not, with a few exceptions--readers--never had been" (p. 19). He learned they "occupied themselves with music, TV, and videos; that they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density" (p. 19), but the students also struggled with the language, the structure of the works, etc. From this and like observations, Birkerts believes that we are fated to be incapable of reading. I oversimply, of course, but that seems to be the general direction of his concerns.

Of course, he does not tell us how he framed the questions or how he moderated the conversation. And he does not seem to contemplate the possibility of using more contemporary American short stories to engage his students before moving on to some of the more classic short stories.

After spending an inordinate amount of time telling the story of his life so the reader has some sense of why he became a critic, he moves to the chapter dramatically titled "The Death of Literature." He does, however, differentiate between what we generally call "fiction" and once we deemed "Literature." He has a point. There was once a time that books were a form of art, that they played an important and significant role in examining society and history, generally doing so with a Purpose. Somewhere in the midst of the rise and evolution of literary criticism, academia appropriated Literature and became to formalize it, deconstruct it, and otherwise examine it through a host of critical lenses. Even books that people once enjoyed reading for the sake of reading became Literature and if the books didn't seem to contribute Something to Society, they were scarcely worth reading.

But authors, bless 'em, kept writing. Yes, there has been a transformation, but it's not as though the technology/TV generation ruined literature. There was romance long before Danielle Steele; there was pulp long before there was Danielle Steele.

Birkerts asserts that "[l]iterature--serious fiction and poetry and the discourse that has always accompanied them and helped make them a way of talking about important and difficult aspects of our universal experience. . ." (p. 191) seems to have slipped to the margins of public and even scholarly interest.

I suspect that Mr. Birkerts is a literary elitist and would argue that reading popular fiction doesn't count even though many of us who have taught literature have used so called "popular fiction" in our classes if for no other reason than it exposes students to a variety of works. I'm not sure how Birkerts would classify Morrison's The Bluest Eye or Potok's The Chosen or Allende's The House of the Spirits or Achebe's Things Fall Apart. But these are all books students read in literature classes along with some of the so-called classics.

Mr. Birkerts goes on to say that technology is

antithetical to inwardness. . . . inward experience, including all aesthetic experience, unfolds in one kind of time; electronic communications, of their very nature, depend upon--indeed create--another. The time of the self is deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it. To the degree that we immerse ourselves in a book. . . to that degree we surrender our awareness of the present as a coordinate on a grid (p. 193).
In one sense, Mr. Birkerts was prescient. In the chapter titled "Coda: The Faustian Pact," he states that he foresees the "wholesale wiring of America" (p. 215) and "ever more complex and efficient technological systems being interposed between the individual and the harsh constraints of nature" (p. 215). He believed, in 1994, that our face-to-face time would diminish and we would spend more time interacting with others via our computer screens. Birkerts quotes Mitchell Kapor's "Democracy and the New Information Highway", which was originally published in 1993 in the Boston Review. Kapor wrote about the expanding information highway that would make available movies, catalogs, magazines, newspapers, courses, and more through a few clicks "of a remote control" (p. 217). Kapor also states that "[t]wo-way video conferencing will revolutionize business meetings, visits to the doctor, and heart-to-heart talks" (p. 217). And this was long before Skype!

It is clear to me, however, that Birkerts is most concerned about time. He asserts that duration is "deep time, time experienced without the awareness of time passing" (p. 219). And believes that "[w]e have destroyed that duration. We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities" (p. 219).

Birkerts does speak some truths as he notes that we are expected to be able to multitask, but I think he overstates the demise of civilization when he suggests we have lost or are losing our sense of distance, that we cannot imagine traveling several miles to visit someone when we can do it instanteously over the wires.

It probably comes as no surprise that Mr. Birkerts finds the Kindle a complete anathema. I suppose that having found that the ensuing years have not proven him right about the demise of reading--the popularity of the Harry Potter series must have been a nasty shock--he had to find some other target to bemoan the disintegraton of the literary.

Dr. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College (IL) quotes Birkerts in a blog post. Apparently Birkerts was afraid that the Kindle will become a "one-stop outlet, a speedy and irrestibly efficient leveler of context" (¶ 4). Apparently Birkerts also gets a little miffed that someone uses a Blackberry to look up a word. Really?

Dr. Jacobs is not the only who thinks Birkerts was and is a little off the mark. You might also find entertaining the exchange between Wen Stephenson and Mr. Birkerts published in 1996. And then there is Edward Champion who begins his blog (2007) with this phrase: "The reputedly intelligent Sven Birkerts. . ."; it doesn't get much better after that. Mr. Champion's blog post is in response to Birkerts' 2007 article published in the Boston Globe. The title of the article? "Lost in the blogosphere: Why literary blogging won't save our literary culture."

Birkerts seems not to like the fluidity of the blogosphere and that one can lost in the labyrinth of links, though he does admit that to being immersed at depth. However, he also says:

The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking . . ." approach. At some level it's the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.
I think it's that highlighted phrase that really bugs Mr. Birkerts. It's not the electronic medium; it's the fact that anyone and everyone can be a writer which also means that anyone and everyone can be a reader and that anyone and everyone can be a critic.

What we have seen is that reading has not died. Yes, how kids and adults read and what we read may have changed. I occasionally mourn how difficult it is to get kids to read more classic texts, but there are so many great books out there, the real difficulty is choosing which painfully small microcosm of books to choose for a 15-week semester. Perhaps the books I select for my students are not what Mr. Birkerts might call Literature, but there are some texts that the so-called experts have called Literature that just don't seem that good to me.

One more observation, though I could make several more. Birkerts worried about the collapse of the duration, but also of our view of the world--that perhaps we would be more constrained because of electronic communications. I cannot help but think of the work of Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis and the Flat Classroom Project. Or the work of Sharon Peters and Teachers Without Borders. Or so many others I've met only through electronic medium and yet with whom I know I have an affinity, perhaps even a relationship.

If anything, teachers are using Web 2.0 technologies not only to expand their students' educational horizons, but to expand their ways of thinking about learning, about reading, and about writing.

One of the absolute best kickers, though, is the NCTE National Gallery of Writing project. This is an incredibly ambitious project through which the NCTE hopes to get every single person in the world to contribute at least one piece of writing. With all of that writing, someone's got to be reading!

Read on!

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