What kind of tone does Sven Birkerts set in the fourth paragraph of his essay "Into the Electronic Millennium"? How does he use diction to set that tone?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his essay “Into the Electronic Millennium,” Sven Birkerts uses a number of different devices of rhetoric and diction to make his essay as effective as possible.  Many of these techniques can be seen in the essay’s fourth paragraph, which describes a former professor who has decided to sell all his books. Birkerts and a colleague (co-managers of a used bookstore which has purchased the man’s library) pack up the books, and then the man shows them a computer he owns. This incident occurred during a time when computers are still relatively new and usual:

While he and my partner hunched over the terminal, I roamed to and fro, inspecting the shelves. It was purely a reflex gesture, for they held nothing but thick binders and paper-bound manuals. "I’m changing my life," the professor–the ex-professor–was saying. "This is definitely where it’s all happening." He told us that he already had several good job offers. And the books? I asked. Why was he selling them all? He paused for a few beats. "They represent a lot of pain to me," he said. "I don’t want to see any of them again."

This paragraph is significant in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • The opening sentence implies that Birkerts was not especially interested, at that time, in computers, so we will be especially interested to see how and if his attitude may have changed in the meantime. He keeps both a literal and a figurative distance from the computer, suggesting that his attitude in the essay is similarly objective. He does not seem to be the kind of person who is easily impressed by the latest fads.
  • The opening sentence implies Birkerts’ continuing interest in, and attachment, to books, even if no actual books are present.
  • The second sentence implies that Birkerts realizes that his behavior is, on some levels, illogical; the sentence therefore shows that Birkerts is capable of being self-critical.
  • The pause and correction Birkerts offers in the third sentence shows his determination to be precisely accurate in what he reports.  At the same time, the phrase “ex-professor” gives added emphasis to that idea and also contributes to one of the essay’s major themes – the ideal of historical change.
  • The quotation from the professor reinforces the idea of change and also contributes to the informal, colloquial tone of the essay. It sounds as if Birkerts is quoting a sentence that might actually have been spoken; there is nothing contrived, artificial, or unconvincing about the quotation.
  • By asking the question, “And the books?” Birkerts in a sense becomes our representative within the essay. He asks precisely the kind of question we might ask, and it is certainly a question we want answered.
  • The fact that Birkerts lets the ex-professor speak so many of the words in this paragraph implies that he is willing to let others have their say, even if he may disagree with them.
  • The fact that Birkerts remembers this incident so clearly – even recalling the precise words the professor spoke – suggests that he does indeed regard the episode as significant and representative.


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