Sven Birkerts Criticism - Essay

Sven Birkerts (essay date Fall 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jack Miles (review date 30 August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

World Literature is not really the name of any academic field, but so much the better for the unpretentious, undefensive style of a critic who can admit what he does not know because there is nothing that—according to some diploma or catalogue title—he must know. Birkerts' motto, as spoken of literature, might be the bookstore clerk's: "I just work here." But of course he has worked there long enough and with such a happy freedom that by now he knows not just how to answer your question but how to correct it.

I think of Birkerts, who won the National Book Critics Circle criticism prize in 1986, as some combination of critic laureate and patron saint for booksellers. For reviewers, his range is such that [An Artificial Wilderness] might claim a spot on the shelf almost as a reference work. But for those in the trade, his book is a proof of how high their calling truly is. It should be stocked and displayed accordingly.

Donald Hall (review date 8 November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sanford Pinsker (review date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jay Farini (review date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John L. Brown (review date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Helen Benedict (review date 16 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bernard Sharratt (review date 18 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andy Solomon (review date 29 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jay Tolson (review date 22 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Wen Stephenson (review date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Norman D. Stevens (review date January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lisa Jardine (review date 13 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 847 words.)

Cliff Stoll (review date 1 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)