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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts 
31st-Dec-2007 11:58 pm
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.
          Summary: In a series of essays, Birkert outlines what he believes to be the unique value of reading and quality literature...and his fear that recent technological transformations are fundamentally transforming the fabric of society for the worse, heralding the eventual surrender of the book to the screen.
          Comments: Much to my surprise, as it turns out, Birkert's book of gloom and doom meditations on media technologies and their social impact makes for an excellent companion volume to Thompson's The Media and Modernity. But perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised. Both writers are white men of near-identical age making similar observations about the modern world and putting them to writing at practically the same time. They both discuss the impact of the media on the individual in near-identical terms (though Birkert confines his view of its effect to the medium of books)--and use exactly the same vocabulary of the "project" of "self-formation" and our situated presence in "space and time." (Where were they getting this stuff from? Is it the influence of hermeneutics, again?) Both even invoke the same tale of a sixteenth century Italian miller's eccentric cosmology! Heck, they've almost certainly met...and I would love to have been a fly on the wall during that conversation.
          Beyond that, though, the similarity ends. Their respective prose styles couldn't be more different, and the conclusions they draw about humanity's relationship with media technology are irreconcilable. Whereas Thompson regards media technology with frank placidity and a measured eye toward the future, Birkert has whipped himself into outright panic: The book will soon become an obsolete technology--already, young people don't know how to read well, and with its decline we will lose our individualities, our sense of history, our capacity for self-analysis and deep understanding. (If this is what mid-life crisis is for a bibliophile, I dread turning forty.) In any case, Birkert's view of the book's privileged position in relation to other forms of mass media, and of the a priori privileged position of face-to-face interaction generally, is definitely not convincing, and the printed volume's outright death appears to have been greatly exaggerated more than a decade later, anyway. He has this decidedly elitist perspective regarding information access that is democratically untenable, and he betrays a near-agoraphobic fear about the way communications technologies make the world smaller. Also, Birkert's dire estimation of the intellectual capacity of young people was profoundly offensive; I was in middle school when this book was written, and though granted I perhaps have an inflated opinion of my own abilities, I think I'm a perfectly competent reader and writer.
          Nevertheless, despite the silliness of its thesis, this book still has plenty to recommend. Birkert's prose is fluid and lovely; though highly repetitive at times, he is an essayist by trade and a master of the craft. (Apparently, he was teaching recently at MHC; I regret that I never had the opportunity to study under him.) And he has an excellent, though highly-personalized and over-emotional, sense of the world around him. I found his descriptions of the transformative power of reading quite touching and his analysis of the decline of literature's prestige in the academy intuitively, if depressingly, true. The autobiographical portions were particularly fun to read--he even worked for Borders back with the brothers were establishing their future bookselling empire in Ann Arbor! And for the media studies student, he offers succinct summations of the seminal theories of such luminaries as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Benjamin.
          Notes: trade paperback, 1st edition
          Rating: 7.5/10 - Variable intellectual value, yet unquestionably affective and aesthetic.
1st-Jan-2008 05:12 pm (UTC)
Nice title.
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