Sven Birkerts Essay - Critical Essays

Birkerts, Sven


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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


Sven Birkerts (essay date Fall 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 4699 words.)

Jack Miles (review date 30 August 1987)

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."...

(The entire section is 393 words.)

Donald Hall (review date 8 November 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Sanford Pinsker (review date Spring 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Jay Farini (review date Summer 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 1611 words.)

John L. Brown (review date Summer 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 565 words.)

Helen Benedict (review date 16 April 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Sven Birkerts with David Holmstrom (interview date 17 August 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 1053 words.)

David Holmstrom (review date 17 August 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Bernard Sharratt (review date 18 December 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1283 words.)

Andy Solomon (review date 29 January 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1097 words.)

Wulf D. Rehder (review date January-February 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1099 words.)

Jay Tolson (review date 22 May 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 2122 words.)

Wen Stephenson (review date 1995)

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.


(The entire section is 6188 words.)

Norman D. Stevens (review date January 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

Sven Birkerts (essay date Summer 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 4906 words.)

Lisa Jardine (review date 13 September 1996)

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....

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Cliff Stoll (review date 1 December 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 898 words.)