(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Sven Birkerts’ book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994), had, as its title suggests, a plaintive, mournful, elegiac tone. In a series of poignant essays, Birkerts detailed his own extensive personal reading history, and broadcast dire predictions for a culture quickly abandoning the traditional book for more passive and light- hearted electronic entertainments. He was bemoaning, not so much the loss of the book per se, but the book reader. Not so much the demise of the paper and glue artifact, as the deterioration of the cultured, interior, quiet way of life built around it. It is not surprising then that his own essay inTolstoy’s Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse continues in this vein, perhaps a little more analytically, but no less passionately. In the essay, “The Fate of the Book,” Birkerts sees screen technologies inexorably elevating open-endedness over closure; decentralization over hierarchy; simultaneity over historical awareness; the public over the private; connectedness over individuality; virtuality over reality, and the functional use of language over the expressive use. None of this, in his view, bodes well for the future. The fate of the book is unfortunately sealed. Here come the electronic barbarians.

Given Birkerts’ forebodings about the fate of books and the individual reader in the coming millennium, the admirable and surprising thing about Tolstoy’s Dictaphone is the wide scope of opinions and styles which have been allowed to rub elbows within its pages. Like a true gentleman of the bookish age, Birkerts is more interested in thoroughly exploring his topic than simply winning his argument. The strength of his anthology is the Catholicism of its views and the idiosyncrasy of its many styles. It is almost as if Birkerts would like to be proved wrong in his apocalyptic visions, or at least discover why no one else seems to be panicking.

Agile, multitalented writers such as Robert Pinsky, who translated The Inferno of Dante in addition to authoring the interactive narrative of Brøderbund’s electronic novel Mindwheel, were simply asked to ruminate on the issues of the self, the artist, the writer, the individual, and the thinker in the new technological age. And ruminate they did, supplying neo-romantic essays, convoluted book reviews, deconstructionist extravagances, feminist manifestos, Luddite laments, alchemical scrapbooks, semantic analysis, library reminiscences, notes and queries, and defenses of the Brave New World. Birkerts’ urbane evenhandedness in choosing the authors for this anthology, and his willingness to accept their various contributions on their own terms, have created a book more likely to generate further discussion than to foster any single agenda. The theme of the entire collection might be summarized as, “this topic is eminently worth discussing,” rather than “we are all doomed.”

Inevitably, the approach of the millennium inspires nostalgia for the past, reflection about the present, and optimism toward the future. Tolstoy’s Dictaphone works all of these veins at once, with verve and style, letting the reader work out his own personal relationship to the book and the electronic revolution.

Birkerts has plenty of company in the nostalgia-for-the-past camp. The Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, for example, is the jumping-off point for Jonathan Franzen’s personal essay, “Scavenging,” in which he compares this museum of obsolete technology with his own beloved rotary phone and the works of Marcel Proust and William Faulkner. Everywhere around him, Franzen sees the old verities, and his vinyl records, being jettisoned in favor of new and frequently meretricious ideas, and exorbitantly priced compact discs. He considers simply accepting the current decline in academic, literary, and aesthetic standards. He questions his sanity. He wonders if it is sheer perversity to resist giving in to technology and modernity. After all, he is just like everyone else, he just wants to be happy. In the final analysis, however, he finds that he cannot abandon his self. He is doomed to love his rotary phone and to try to rescue the dense, challenging literature of our heritage from the...

(The entire section is 1741 words.)