Study Guide

The Gutenberg Elegies

by Sven Birkerts

The Gutenberg Elegies Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In choosing the title The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts immediately announces the tone as well as the subject of his collection of essays on, as the subtitle specifies, “the fate of reading in an electronic age.” Throughout his series of critical analyses and autobiographical tales, he nostalgically mourns the decay of print culture and the low ebb of what had been a centuries-long ascendancy of literacy.

Yet he is luckier than most elegists: While he laments, he feels a heartbeat. His beloved subject, though weak, still lives. Birkerts’ task, then, is not only to mourn but also to mobilize against what he hopes will be a preventable murder. His insistent warning is that modern culture is filled with smoking guns, in the form of phosphorescent screens (televisions, computer displays, video games), aimed, whether intentionally or not, at eliminating, not enhancing, what has traditionally been defined as human creativity and consciousness.

It is ironic that Birkerts begins by striking the pose of the alienated prophet. Far from being a solitary voice in the wilderness, Birkerts is instantly recognizable as part of a chorus of critics who complain of the decline of humanistic, print-based education—our best hope, they would argue, for a society of independent but democratic, cultured, and compassionate citizens—and whose particular complaints focus on the way electronic technology and especially electronic media inevitably create a glutinous and thoroughly undesirable mass mind and mass society. Birkerts’ contribution to the debates on cultural literacy and the powers of modern technology is a renewed sense of urgency, based on the reminder that arguments about what people read may be mere quibbles until it is determined whether the next generations will read at all.

Birkerts’ unstated antagonist throughout much of the book, Marshall McLuhan, is also in a curious way his model, encouraging a relentless study of the various and subtle ways that each medium affects consciousness and transforms mental and social interactions in its distinctive way. Humans shape their media and then are shaped by those media, McLuhan said repeatedly, and this infinitely rich proposition—which is also highly arguable and in need of constant refinement and careful application—is at the foundation of Birkerts’ critical methodology. Yet he radically disagrees with McLuhan’s vision of the primary effects of print and electronic media. McLuhan, in effect, wrote his own elegy on the age of print, titled The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). Nothing was more certain to McLuhan than the fact that the age of what he called “typographic man” was coming to an end, but while he knew full well that this would prompt a great crisis—a crisis that Birkerts chronicles—he welcomed the new age of electronic media, which promised an end to the rigidity, isolation, blinkered vision, and essential melancholy of print and a new age of multisensory knowledge, depth experience, and retribalization into what he called a “global village.”

It is uncanny how much Birkerts adopts from McLuhan, echoing key parts of his vocabulary and conceptual frame, but basically turning him upside down. Like McLuhan, he is both a phenomenologist and a sociologist of reading, interested in examining the cognitive, emotional, and social consequences of literacy, and he agrees that the act of reading requires and reinforces analysis and privacy. From this point, however, they part company. For Birkerts this privacy is not an unwelcome banishment from the full range of human activity but rather an oasis that nourishes, if not creates, both self and soul. In a very real sense, Birkerts’ premise is “I read, therefore I am,” and much of his book is occupied with extended descriptions of how “the effort of engaging a book shows a desire to actualize and augment certain inner powers.”

Three chapters, carefully positioned at the exact center of the book, celebrate reading (not electronic media, as McLuhan would have it) as a realm of experience in depth, imaginative play, and ultimate connectedness. “Paging the Self: Privacies of Reading” nicely describes how characters are textualized, captured in the pages of a book, but then set free in a process of reading that also calls out to and shapes the developing self of an active reader. “The Shadow Life of Reading” first acknowledges but then dissolves the differences between what one reads and what one experiences in “real” life, suggesting that all memories are traces of communications and communions and that powerful experiences of reading not only alert readers to the vitality of life but also help diminish the “sense of irreconcilable otherness” that divides the individual from other people, other time periods, other cultures. “From the Window of a Train” asserts that books are the archetypal “cool” medium, inviting, even necessitating,...

(The entire section is 2019 words.)