Sven Birkerts Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."