Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cri de coeur over books — The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts

I already reviewed a part of Sven Birkerts' influential book when I addressed his position on audio books. It is obvious that I was in disagreement with some of his opinions about this form of books.

Now it is a time to express my opinion about the book as a whole. It is a book about the change of our perception of literature and, in general, of books in the "electronic age" marked by shift from the deep perception of literature, experience of its meaning to the superficial, fast, „multilayered, multitrack ability to deal with the world” — characteristic to the electronic age.

The book is divided into three major parts. In the first „Reading Self” contemplates on the role of writing and reading for out inner life, our inner experience. With some autobiographical threads Birkerts main thought is the dialog between people that comes through writing:

„Every true reader, then, is a writer and every true writer is a reader, and every person engaged in the project of self-awareness is the reader and writer of himself. Writer and reader: They are the recto and verso of language, which is itself the medium of our deeper awareness.”

In the second part, „The Electronic Millennium”, Birkerts analyses the developments going on in the perception of literature and its importance in our times, and first analyses three important factors resulting from electronization of our literary experience: „The Language Erosion”, „Flattering of historical perspectives” and „The waning of the private self” giving all the factors deep explanation. One of the most important results of these factors is the danger of „societal totalism”, described as a „movement toward deindividuation, or electronic collectivization”.

Next, the author goes for the analysis of the impact of the pervasive external digital systems on our notion of wisdom and knowledge. Here the danger lies in the shift of our role in relation to knowledge:

„(...) we may choose to become the technicians of our auxiliary brains,mastering not the information but the retrieval and referencing functions” (...) „The leader of the electronic tribe would not be the person who knew most, but the one who could execute the broadest range of technical functions.”

It is hard not to agree with Birkerts — the danger is real.
Later in the same part, the author goes for analysis of audio books and hyperlinked systems. And here I came to conclusion that many his conclusions missed the true dangers and focused on some that are not really of any imminence. The first set of issues, related to audio books, I addressed before and I refer readers to that post. The second is related to hypertext. And here is where I disagree with the author very strongly. To me, he did not notice the true essence of hypertext. He focuses on potential non-linearity of reading on the web (true), on the difference on writing with the computer and a mouse, but misses the key point of the new communication enabled through hyperlinks. Some notes are good shots:

„Do we still call it reading? Or would we do better to coin a new term, something like 'texting' or 'word-piloting' ” or „Hypertext — at least the spirit of hypertext, which I see as the spirit of the times — promises to deliver me from this, to free me from the 'liberation domination' of the author”.

But generally, I must say, the Birkerts notion of hypertext is superficial and — that he also did not stress the real danger related to hypertext — the distraction it brings to frequent web readers...

The last part of the book, „Three meditations” contemplates the changes in literature and art. First, is describes the dissolution of the real audience („The isolated reader may remain, but the audience is gone and is not likely to reappear”) in the electronic era. Second, it refers to Alvin's Kernan's „Death of Literature” and analyses the eroding role of the literature and more generally, of art. The apparent reason of it, according to Birkerts, is in the ”entirely inhospitable” electronic environment to the „stuff of art”. Finally he worries about the degradation of the very role of author:

„It assumes, too, that people will, out of a vestigial craving for meaning, or out of a sinking dread at what their lives have become, turn again to writers for the news they need. If nothing like this happens, then the writer will take a place beside the scrimshow artist in the museum of hallowed but ultimately useless crafts.”

The book is concluded by a code with the significant title „The Faustian Pact”. Birkerts uses the devilish allegory and warns us about the full enodorsment of the electronic way of life:

„From deep in the heart I hear the voice that says, 'Refuse it'”

There is also an interesting author afterword, written by the author 10 years after the first edition of the book. He seems to ease his „Faustian Pact” dilemma: „It falls to us individually, one by one, to decide how we will face up to the seduction of the new — how much of it to use, how much to refuse”.

I must admit, that when I first read this book, several months ago I had a bit concerned opinion than today. Maybe it was after my reading of Nicolas Carr's "The Shadows" when I started to appreciate Birkerts "Cri de coeur" more...


  1. ..."the distraction it brings to frequent web readers...",could you elaborate on that?

  2. Hi Amila,

    I (indirectly) referred to the phenomenon of the difficulty of long-term concentration when reading a text with hyperlinks. While, obviously, hyperlinks are the most important building blocks of the Web, in excess, they have dramatic impact on our ability of focusing on the content of the text we read.

    See this: