It was Thorton Wilder who at an important conference in Aspen, Colorado, in 1949 reminded the world that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the first great thinker to suggest that the literature of the future would be a world literature, a literature with a “planetary consciousness.” That future has arrived. The scholarship of comparative literature and the great histories of Ernst Robert Curtius, René Wellek, and Erich Auerbach, have demonstrated that indeed a common vein of ideas and conventions runs through all of Western literature. The archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye has also made profound contributions to the understanding of the underlying uniformity of literary heritage. Nevertheless, the obstacles of language and skeptical attitudes toward the value of translation have continued to promote parochialism and outdated nationalism in the minds of contemporary readers, particularly in the United States, where knowledge of foreign languages is perhaps even weaker than in previous decades and where the native tradition remains largely insular, feeding on its short history and reclaiming lost writers instead of thrusting forward with a sense of the world as it is.
Enter Sven Birkerts. Presently he teaches expository writing at Harvard University and writes excellent reviews for The New Republic. He is in his thirties, hardly the age of a sage. Unlike Goethe, who was a sage and who enjoyed the stimulation of Weimar, Sven Birkerts earned his B.A. at the University of Michigan in 1973 and then worked for many years as a bookseller in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The stores were his Xanadu: He was close to books all the time, an intimacy he has treasured since childhood. In one of the most moving essays in this volume, “Notes from a Confession,” an essay named one of the best of 1986 by Elizabeth Hardwick, Birkerts tells the reader what books mean to him.
He concedes that he has been suffering from an obsession: “Psychopathia librorum.” He surrounds himself with the printed word and muses on the sexual nature of his pleasure. Perhaps, he thinks, the same “pleasure” Roland Barthes connects with writing can also be found in reading. This pleasure does not come from escaping the so-called real world. On the contrary, immersion in a story provides the distancing from self that brings reality closer. Birkerts has read Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886) four or five times. Why?I reread and cherish this book because it allows me, while I’m reading it, and for a period after I have put it aside, to perceive my life not as a random sequence of events, or an accident, but as a destiny.
Birkerts’ hunger to intensify his own life through wide reading takes on the urgency of a mission in his reviews and criticism. He has translated the sense of personal growth and...
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