Sven Birkerts 1951–
American essayist and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Birkerts's career through 1996.
The author of An Artificial Wilderness (1987) and The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), Birkerts is a self-described "amateur" literary critic, who received a citation in excellence in book reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1986. Though not formally trained in criticism nor espousing any particular academic theory in his approach to literature, Birkerts has established a reputation for arguing his positions with passion, clarity, and eloquence, both provoking and welcoming debate about his ideas. His extensive reading (usually in English translation) has qualified him to critique European, Russian, and Latin American literature, producing a critical discourse that not only acknowledges the talents of such literary luminaries as Heinrich Böll, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Jorge Luis Borges, but also recommends the merits of such lesser-known writers as Robert Musil and Erich Heller. Birkerts's critical purview also has extended to matters dealing with the relationship between society and technology in late-twentieth century civilization, specifically in terms of the art of reading, the printed word, and the proliferation of electronic media. Intrigued by the freshness and range of Birkerts's thought, critics generally have admired the simple, quotidian language and style of his essays, although a few have claimed that his literary exegeses neglect problems germane to translated texts and that his cautionary essays about "the fate of the book" often betray profound nostalgia.
Born in Pontiac, Michigan, Birkerts attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1973. Upon graduating, he stayed in Ann Arbor and worked as a clerk in bookstores there, and later, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, until 1983; he has credited his bookstore experiences for prompting his voracious reading habit, remarking that "I chewed my sandwich with an open book in my lap." Meanwhile, Birkerts contributed book reviews and critical essays on world literature to such periodicals as New Republic, Mirabella, and the Boston Review, serving the latter publication as contributing editor since 1988. In 1984, Birkerts accepted an invitation to join the faculty at Harvard University as a lecturer in expository writing, a po-sition he held until 1991. Following his National Book Critics Circle award, he published his first book, An Artificial Wilderness (1987), a collection comprised mostly of book reviews first published over a seven-year period during the 1980s. For his second book, The Electric Life (1989), Birkerts won the P.E.N. Award for Distinguished Essays in 1990. A prolific contributor of articles and book reviews to numerous periodicals, he collected some of these in American Energies (1992), which deals exclusively with American fiction and writers. A defining moment of Birkerts's reputation came with the publication of his controversial essays in The Gutenberg Elegies. Subsequently, he assembled the essay collection Tolstoy's Dictaphone (1996), which presents opinions on the social effects of technological media. Birkerts, who has lectured extensively both in person and on-line, has taught writing part time at Emerson College in Boston since 1992.
Birkerts's writings display a genuine fondness for literature as books (opposed to texts), an abiding respect for the printed word (opposed to electronic formats), and a minute attention to the act of reading words on paper (as opposed to on a screen). The thirty-nine essays collected in An Artificial Wilderness draw attention to the works of some of the world's notable twentieth-century writers whose works are available in English translation, including Joseph Roth, Osip Mandelstam, Marguerite Duras, Michel Tournier, Primo Levi, Lars Gustafsson, V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Julio Cortázar, among many others, notably excepting any contemporary American authors. The other essays in An Artificial Wilderness concern general cultural topics; for instance, the function of television in the creation of the "mass age." The title of The Electric Life alludes to a phrase found in Percy Bysshe Shelley's A Defence of Poetry (1821), which describes poetic language as "electric life that burns." The essays comprising The Electric Life concern the influence of electronic media on contemporary literacy and describe the contemporary social context for the art of poetry. Among the themes contemplated are the ways television informs late twentieth-century poetic language, the idea of poetic inspiration, the politics and aesthetics of poetry, and analyses of some individual poems and poets. American Energies, Birkerts's third collection of book reviews and critical essays, offers a general assessment of the contemporary American novel genre, which he finds weakened or "lightweight"—lacking depth and historical resonance of vision in comparison to previous generations of American novels—due to its coincidence with the technological boom in communications media. Divided into three parts, The Gutenberg Elegies, a collection of fifteen essays, concerns the place of reading in society, centering on changes occurring in print and electronic media and the threat to the act of reading occasioned by these changes. The essays comprising the first section, "The Reading Self," are largely autobiographical, dealing with Birkerts's own reading experiences that illuminate the dynamics of reading. In the second section, "The Electronic Millennium," the essays examine the question of how reading, or the interpretation of texts, changes in an electronic environment. The last section, "Critical Mass: Three Meditations," addresses changes in the culture at large with respect to the quality of literary or intellectual life, the so-called "death of literature," and the ways in which technology has affected the role of the serious writer. Tolstoy's Dictaphone, an essay collection edited by Birkerts, features twenty articles by "writers who use and have been used by today's electronic machinery," as Cliff Stoll has described them, each one reflecting the tension that frequently exists when technology impinges upon social intercourse.
Birkerts generally has impressed critics with his breadth of knowledge of world literature as well as with his common language and cogent, direct style as an essayist and literary critic. As David Holmstrom put it, "Birkerts brokers his analysis on the reader with a sharply reasoned but calm style." Birkerts's critical acumen, though esteemed as it is in most literary circles, has prompted a vigorous debate about the demise of print-oriented culture in the face of explosive developments in electronic modes of communication. Although many commentators frequently have pointed out Birkerts's evident bias for the printed word and often have cited what Wulf D. Rehder has called "falling in love with our own nostalgia" as the principal defect of the tone of his thought, the majority also have responded to the inherent value of Birkerts's insights, particularly those expressed in The Gutenberg Elegies. "There is no denying that Birkerts' quiver of arguments contains many sharp arrows that are, like Cupid's, dipped in such a sweet poison of persuasion and passion and appeal that, once hit, we might want to give in to their narcotic effect," Rehder has stated. "That Birkerts proves so open to attack," Andy Solomon has observed, "is far more a testament to the courageously vast sweep of his polemic than to the disputable validity of his argument," suggesting that Birkerts's way of thinking and style of writing invites the reader "to synthesize a new, deepened understanding of our own relationships to the printed and electronically transmitted word." Gesturing toward the significance of Birkerts's contribution of The Gutenberg Elegies "to our ongoing discussion of the nature of the continuing electronic revolution and its impact on the nature of the process by which we 'read' and acquire information, knowledge, and wisdom," Norman D. Stevens has asserted that "in the long run, we will all be the poorer if we fail to take [Birkerts's] insights into account as we design and implement electronic alternatives to the book."
An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature (essays) 1987
The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (essays) 1989
Writing Well [with Donald Hall] (criticism) 1991
American Energies: Contemporary Fiction (essays) 1992
The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (essays) 1994
Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse [editor] (criticism) 1996
(The entire section is 47 words.)
SOURCE: "Television: The Medium in the Mass Age," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Fall, 1983, pp. 619-32.
[In the following essay, Birkerts ponders (he role of television in contemporary society, describing its "consciousness" with respect to the social implications of "watching" it.]
No one who has walked through the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii is likely to forget the oppressiveness of the experience, far outweighing its historical fascination or its cachet as future table talk. The dreariness of a George Segal sculpture has been multiplied a thousandfold: the heavy seal of Time has been impressed upon the ordinariness of daily life. We are suddenly able to imagine our lives embalmed at a casual moment. Indeed, I sometimes wonder what hypothetical aliens might find if our planet were surprised by an avalanche of ash—especially if their craft landed, years hence, somewhere on our shores. I try to imagine their exclamations, their cries of puzzlement, as they go from house to house. I envision through their eyes the petrified, white-washed figures, their arrangement—singly, in groups—some four to eight feet from a prominent up-ended box. There would be boxes with horns, boxes without. Gender markings? The more enlightened among them would shake their heads. "These are clearly religious objects, domestic shrines. We have found the remains of a very spiritual race."...
(The entire section is 4699 words.)
SOURCE: A review of An Artificial Wilderness, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 30, 1987, p. 4.
[In the following review of An Artificial Wilderness, Miles admires the range of Birkerts's literary knowledge.]
This is too cruel, but I will do it. One of the books reviewed in this collection of Sven Birkerts's book reviews and other short essays is a similar collection by George Steiner, of which Birkerts writes: "When I heard that Oxford University Press was issuing George Steiner: A Reader (1984), I was distressed to see that venerable old house giving in to the bonbon sampler trend—and shocked to find Steiner a party to the deed." Obviously, Birkerts has been party to just such a deed at Morrow; but readers who have been reading and enjoying his work here and there without knowing anything about him will not be distressed.
Birkerts, we learn in the introduction to the collection, fell in love with literature in an Ann Arbor bookstore, not in the classroom. He worked in that and other bookstores for years, defining his "field" as he went. And where he went, before too long, was to contemporary literature written outside the United States. The result, as the years passed, was that he became an unofficial or informal authority on European, Russian and Latin American literature, widely published and eventually invited to teach at Harvard University....
(The entire section is 393 words.)
SOURCE: "Truth in Transit," in The New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1987, p. 16.
[In the following review of An Artificial Wilderness, Hall praises Birkerts's "urgent, serious, energetic voice" for celebrating non-American writers and books.]
Sven Birkerts shakes us by the shoulders, telling us what to read and how to read it. He urges Robert Musil on us, comparing him to Nietzsche: "We find in both the same impatience, the same determination to stay in motion, and the understanding that the truth is itself a process, its seeker forever embattled. We turn to Musil because he never lies to us and because he never hides from the unsightly implications of a particular thought." In An Artificial Wilderness, his first book, Mr. Birkerts's urgent, serious, energetic voice ranges over the world of modern letters—with passionate intelligence discovering, praising and recommending books and writers: many German-language novelists. Marguerite Yourcenar, Malcolm Lowry, Cyril Connolly, V. S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott together, Borges, Walter Benjamin.
This critic is above all a reader, even a book lover, without the props of pipe and tweed that once characterized these roles. Just now he teaches composition at Harvard but he is not an academic; he has spent a third of his life—I take him for 35 or so—working in bookstores: "I chewed my sandwich with an open book in my...
(The entire section is 619 words.)
SOURCE: "Collecting Cultural Evidence," in The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 351-9.
[In the following excerpt, Pinsker evaluates Birkerts's style, range, and method in An Artificial Wilderness.]
Sven Birkerts, a voracious reader and reviewer, is "burdened" neither by the venerable reputations that Professors Marx and Brooks enjoy nor by the tortured jargon that infects so many of his contemporaries. He writes with independence and with style and surely deserves the citation he recently won from the National Book Critics Circle for excellence in reviewing.
An Artificial Wilderness is a collection of some thirty-nine pieces written over the last seven years. Birkerts is, above all else, a wide-ranging, extraordinarily catholic reader. Indeed, his table of contents reads like an international Who's Who of the most interesting twentieth-century writers: Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, Osip Mandelstam, Marguerite Duras, Michel Tournier, Primo Levy, Lars Gustafsson, V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Julio Cortazar. Conspicuously absent, of course, are any contemporary American writers, but as Birkerts explains,
Though I had grown up on a steady diet of American moderns—Salinger, Heller, Mailer, Bellow, Percy, and others—I found that I was growing more and more dissatisfied with the local product. In this most...
(The entire section is 836 words.)
SOURCE: "Reading Sven Birkerts," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 124-27.
[In the following review of An Artificial Wilderness, Parini illuminates Birkerts's critical technique with respect to contemporary, academic criticism.]
"The arrow of modern life and the arrow of private sensibility have passed in opposite directions," writes Sven Birkerts, one of the most independent critics now writing in America, in his first collection of essays, An Artificial Wilderness. This remark is made in the course of an "appreciation" of Cyril Connolly, a critic who in many ways Birkerts himself recalls. Connolly is praised for his awareness of literature as part of a larger historical process: "Implicit in his valuations, supporting and authorizing them, was an active recognition of historical process. This awareness was at once particular—he grasped the dynamic interactions of person, place, and milieu—and relativistic." He sets this concern for context against the "prevailing thrust of critical theory," by which he presumably means the formalist strategies subsumed under the title of post-structuralism.
The flight from history to "language"—that is, to a disembodied system of signs, a resonating void wherein meaning flickers, tenuously, and fades into an infinitely recessive dark—clearly obsesses Birkerts, as well it should, though one wishes he defined...
(The entire section is 1611 words.)
SOURCE: A review of An Artificial Wilderness, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1988, p. 515.
[In the following review, Brown appreciates the way Birkerts treats "literature as literature" in An Artificial Wilderness, outlining the contents of the book.]
Sven Birkerts began his career as a member of that menaced species, the bookseller whose passion is "the unpunished vice of reading," the bookseller who is also a talented man (or woman, like Sylvia Beach) of letters and whose shop is no Walden or Crown supermarket of perishable print but the equivalent of a literary salon. He carries on the tradition of an Edmund Wilson and writes, not for the specialist, but for the cultivated general reader. He deplores the jargon, the unreadability of much academic criticism. He insists that "literature is worth nothing if it can not help us make sense of our historical circumstance." He regrets that so many contemporary American writers have failed to do this and "have retreated … into the dumb affectlessness" of a Carver, of a Beattie. So he sought guidance elsewhere, in the work of Europeans like Milosz, Frisch, Kundera; and they, in their turn, led him back to their great predecessors, Musil, Benjamin, Mandelstam.
Like Larbaud before him, Birkerts proclaims himself "an amateur": "These essays are finally the arguments and enthusiasms of a reader. An amateur. They...
(The entire section is 565 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Electric Life, in The New York Times Book Review, April 16, 1989, p. 2.
[In the following review, Benedict describes Birkerts's attitude toward poetry in The Electric Life as intellectually challenging yet provocatively open to debate.]
Sven Birkerts—who won considerable acclaim for his first book of literary criticism, An Artificial Wilderness, and who won the l996 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism—writes in a voice that veers between passionate harangue and smart-aleck banter. He is not too arrogant to engage the reader in debate, for even when he sounds contemptuous he leaves open a back door for disagreement, but he does tend to be annoyingly, though wittily, snide. "Poetry is now largely a face-saving operation, with poets pulling their bitterness inside out and preening themselves on their own uselessness," he writes in The Electric Life. Mr. Birkerts, who teaches at Harvard University, contemplates the declining state of literacy in our television-addicted age and tries to discover how, and if, poetry fits into our world. He discusses the ruinous effect of the electronic media on our minds, offers a reverential study of inspiration and conducts a rather precious debate on what makes poetry political. Mr. Birkerts then explores why he loves certain poems and, in brave defiance of academic tradition, attempts to find out what...
(The entire section is 293 words.)
SOURCE: "A Call to Authors: Explore Culture," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 84, August 17, 1992, p. 14.
[In the following interview, Birkerts expresses his attitude toward contemporary novelistic fiction and reading habits of the public.]
To stretch a comparison here, critic Sven Birkerts has approached what he sees as the weak cathedral of the American novel, and like Martin Luther with his 95 theses, has nailed a protest to the door.
In this case, the protest (really a summons) is directed at American novelists writing in the fields of minimalism, nostalgia, and the other sweet-smelling soaps of Post-Modernism. Mr. Birkerts wants them to return to the novel form that explores culture with depth and historical resonance.
His engaging new book, American Energies, contains his "summons" on page 150. It is a list of the attributes to be found in the works of "elder writers." followed by the "lite" attributes of younger writers.
Younger novelists fall short, says Birkerts, because their books are morally neutral, without depth, fragmented, and conceived ahistorically with everything taking place in the present. Character is implied without much social dimension, and the books end with insignificant resolutions.
Birkerts brokers his analysis on the reader with a sharply reasoned but calm style. No urgent shouting here; no...
(The entire section is 1053 words.)
SOURCE: "Today's Novels Are Lightweight, Says Critic," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 84, August 17, 1992, p. 14.
[In the following review, Holmstrom concentrates on a question of excellence that he believes is implied by Birkerts's arguments in American Energies.]
After a reader turns the last page of Sven Birkerts's American Energies, a question comes quickly to thought: Is there any effort left in the United States to be excellent? Not to win, not to have the most, or be the biggest, or the quickest, but to be excellent?
Birkerts's collection of essays on what he sees as the weakened condition of American novels is not directly about excellence.
It's the lack of depth and resonance in novels that worries him. As a reflection of an American culture spun into confection by technology, he argues, mostly lightweight novels are being written now. While my guess is that he would validate the pursuit of excellence as worthy even in novels, the desire for excellence is a characteristic, not a vision.
But inadvertently, Birkerts suggests that excellence and vision are intertwined. He wants novels to return to encompassing visions, to the kind of stories that "gather what we are" and become unforgettable.
He offers a partial lineup of novelists who "reached artistic maturity" just before technology and the sonic boom of media...
(The entire section is 419 words.)
SOURCE: "Are There Books in Our Future?," in The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, p. 14.
[In the following review, Sharratt exposes several assumptions that inform Birkerts's analysis of reading in The Gutenberg Elegies.]
Major historical transformations can be imagined most poignantly as parental anxieties. Any book-loving parent today contemplating a 5-year-old daughter absorbed in the first magic of solo reading can whisk forward to her teen and college years, vicariously re-anticipating that first full encounter with Austen, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann—only to halt this nostalgic rerun in sudden recognition of an alternative possible scenario: of a generation by then so enmeshed in electronic information, so tuned in not just to television but to pervasive interactive multimedia, so besotted by on-line data services, as to have grown up barely acquainted with printed books at all, except as museum exhibits or as unwelcome inherited wallpaper.
This worry is the starting point for Sven Birkerts's collection of essays The Gutenberg Elegies, which focuses on the epochal shift he sees occurring between print and electronic media. He imagined his daughter graduating into a post-book world already partly inhabited by college freshmen so attuned to the rapid rhythms of MTV as to be wholly unresponsive to the patient patterns of Henry James's prose, so seduced by the...
(The entire section is 1283 words.)
SOURCE: "Endangered Books?," in Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1995, pp. 4-9.
[In the following review, Solomon discusses the pros and cons of Birkerts's thesis in The Gutenberg Elegies.]
Deeply imprinted in both our racial and individual psyches is the image of a lost golden age, paradisiacal in its virtue and brilliance. Nothing, it seems, can recall that Edenic hour of splendor in the grass or glory in the womb except lamentation that the good old days have yielded to coarser, brasher times.
So those of us who love the spell and sensuous delight of books come with predisposed sympathy to Sven Birkerts' mournful elegy for the printed page [The Gutenberg Elegies]. Writing on an antiquated typewriter a mere floppy disk's throw from MIT, the justly acclaimed literary critic has peered into the technological future of letters and found, to his horror, that it moves at the speed of light.
Speaking as "an unregenerate reader, one who still believes that language and not technology is the true evolutionary miracle," Birkerts argues with passion and dismay that modern electronic communication and information technologies have brought our culture to "what promises to be a total metamorphosis … What is roaring by, destined for imminent historical oblivion, is the whole familiar tradition of the book."
That many are reading these words on America Online...
(The entire section is 1097 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Gutenberg Elegies, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, January-February, 1995, pp. 3, 8.
[In the following review, Rehder praises Birkerts's powers of persuasion in The Gutenberg Elegies, heeding the emphasis on the personal aspect of his thought.]
Second only to sex, the human mind seems concerned about books. Both can be all-consuming, and their decline has been seen as a sure sign that Western culture is coming to an end. What the nether areas of pornography are to sex, the new media of TV, hypertext, CDs, and the Internet are to books. According to Sven Birkerts, they are "masturbation aids" for the mind, except that these outcroppings of high technology don't make us think dirty thoughts; they just get us thinking. They also get Sven Birkerts writing, and what terrific writing it is! Yet it won't do just to call Birkerts a stylist of the highest order, steeped in the tradition of Lionel Trilling's liberal imagination. He does reach the depth of intellect and the height of sensibility that Trilling wrote about so eloquently. But Birkerts is not as indirect or "Jamesian" about his convictions, because he has seen the devil at the cross-roads more clearly than Trilling could 50 years ago. A vow to refuse the devil's temptations rather than a call for exorcism, these Elegies are about thinking and about ideas.
(The entire section is 1099 words.)
SOURCE: "Afterwords," in The New Republic, Vol. 212, No. 21, May 22, 1995, pp. 40-1.
[In the following review, Tolson describes the principal themes of The Gutenberg Elegies, explaining the deficiencies of Birkerts's arguments yet admiring his passion for reading.]
It's not easy to pick up a book about the impending death of a practice once thought to be at the heart of the well-lived life. I mean the practice of reading, especially the kind of serious reading we were taught was not only the means to an education, but its self-delighting end. And though it may be comforting to hear one's twilight fears echoed and elaborated by someone so steadily persuasive as Sven Birkerts, it's hard to shake the feeling that his book would more profitably sit in the hands of those who are least likely to turn to it: the growing number of "wired" citizens who consider books, and book-reading, quaint atavisms in the evolution of information technology. This book's message is apt to seem to them as distant as its medium.
The medium in this case is the old-fashioned discursive essay—personal, reflective, edifying and (true to the title of the collection) elegiac. Through the fifteen essays gathered here, two themes march solemnly, purposefully and often hand in hand. The first is that the reading of good books is an essential, and essentializing, activity: that it deepens and individualizes us,...
(The entire section is 2122 words.)
SOURCE: "The Message Is the Medium: A Reply to Sven Birkerts and The Gutenberg Elegies," in The Chicago Review, Vol. 41, No. 4, 1995, pp. 116-30.
[In the following review, Stephenson challenges Birkerts's thesis in The Gutenberg Elegies, addressing the impact of electronic media on the literary arts.]
"Where am I when I am involved in a book?"
—Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies
"You're in cyberspace."
—Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, responding to Birkerts in the Harper's Magazine Forum.
I have before my eyes a page, and on the page, typewritten in a serif font, is a poem. It is an ode written in 1819 by John Keats. I read the first words aloud to myself, slowly, pronouncing each syllable as though it were a musical note or a percussive beat: "Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time." As I continue down the page, I linger over certain phrases and rhymes; I go back and re-read, taking the stanzas apart and putting them back together again in my mind. The words fall into their order, and I feel their rhythm somewhere in my chest, the resonance of language uttered by a human voice in solitude. I am forced back into myself by the words on the page,...
(The entire section is 6188 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Gutenberg Elegies, in Library Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 105-06.
[In the following review of The Gutenberg Elegies, Stevens evaluates Birkerts's insights on the act of reading in an electronic environment.]
Technocrats are likely simply to reject the views expressed by Sven Birkerts in these fourteen challenging essays as being a Luddite love of the way things are. Old-fashioned librarians are likely simply to accept those views at face value or, worse, to quote excerpts that they may have read in a review to justify their continuing reluctance to deal with technology. That would be unfortunate, for in The Gutenberg Elegies he presents a carefully reasoned point of view of various aspects of reading, and not necessarily other forms of communication, and how the skills and techniques of reading are altered and changed in an electronic environment. All of us, and especially librarians, can learn a great deal from a thoughtful reading of these essays regardless of whether we disagree or agree with what he has to say.
As Birkerts is careful to point out in his brief introduction, "The Reading Wars," much of what he has to say is derived largely from his own personal experiences as a reader. That is especially true of the seven essays in the first section, "The Reading Self," of his book. Much of the content of those first...
(The entire section is 967 words.)
SOURCE: "'The Fate of the Book,'" in The Antioch Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 261-72.
[In the following essay, Birkerts speculates about the implications of (he transition from page-centered (book) to screen-centered (on-line) communication in contemporary society.]
I would need the fingers of both hands to track how many times this past year I have been asked to give my thoughts on something called "the fate of the book." I have sat on symposia, perched on panels, opined on-line, and rattled away on the radio—not once, it seems, addressing the fate of reading, or literacy, or imagination, but always that other thing: the fate of the book. Which would be fine, really, except that the host or moderator never really wants to talk about the book—the artifact, the bundle of bound pages—or even much about the class of things to which it belongs. That class of things is of interest to people mainly insofar as it is bound up with innumerable cultural institutions and practices. In asking about the fate of the book, most askers really want to talk about the fate of a way of life. But no one ever just comes out and says so. This confirms my general intuition about Americans, even—or especially—American intellectuals. We want to talk about the big things but we just can't let ourselves admit it.
I begin with this observation because I am, paradoxically, always encountering...
(The entire section is 4906 words.)
SOURCE: "Pulling the Plug," in New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4300, September 13, 1996, pp. 46-7.
[In the following review, Jardine faults the integrity of Birkerts's polemic in The Gutenberg Elegies, dismissing his prediction of cultural doom from technological advances.]
Sven Birkerts composes his literary essays on an old IBM Selectrix typewriter. He is proud to admit that he understands little about new technology. But he is absolutely sure that the advent of the personal computer marks the end of reading, and that the headlong expansion of the Internet sounds the death knell for the book as we know it.
Enthusiastic reviews of the U.S. edition of The Gutenberg Elegies eloquently testify that plenty of cultivated people will welcome Birkerts's lament, full of foreboding, because it resonates deeply with their own sense of the end of culture. The Bloomsbury Review is quoted: "In my more melancholy mood I hear deeper in The Gutenberg Elegies a most mesmeric music, and I shudder from the resonance these essays generate in my heart."
What is Birkerts so afraid of? Broadly speaking, that the days when we could ask adolescents to read the exquisitely intricate prose of Henry James and William Faulkner with unselfconscious ease and delight may be over. As a teacher I can confirm that he is right, but is he also right to insist (to the point of...
(The entire section is 847 words.)
SOURCE: "Wired Thing, You Make My Heart Sing," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 1, 1996, p. 4.
[In the following review, Stall highlights the degree of ambiguity surrounding the relationship between society and technology, explaining the titular allusion of Tolstoy's Dictaphone.]
Slowly, our blind infatuation with digital technology is giving way to some obvious questions: How do we treat computers? How do computers affect us? Might we be involved in an electronic Faustian bargain?
My online friends immediately respond: "Don't worry, the computer is just a tool." But in The Media Equation, Stanford University professors Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass show that we don't treat computers as tools. Rather, we relate to computers as if they were real people and places. Suddenly, this rationale explains plenty: the yearning for simple, user-friendly systems; the spread of Internet addiction; viewers' hypnotic attachment to multimedia games.
The authors work in mass communications and sociology: They study computing using psychological means. In one experiment, they programmed one computer system to present a dominant style of answers, another to be more submissive. The first machine made assertions and answered questions with great confidence. The other responded with timid suggestions and a bit of wavering. Sure enough, subjects using the two systems saw...
(The entire section is 898 words.)