The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. – book reviews
Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies is the most passionate and inspired book I’ve read in some time. The work is, in essence, an extended cry of mourning for the private and disciplined act of self-nourishment we know as reading. In our restless age, when our attention is constantly tugged at by competing media, reading is losing out to its younger, more clamorous sibling rivals. Birkerts maintains that with this substitution comes a significant loss – that the new technologies are abbreviating, flattening out, and attenuating our connections, our relations, with each other, and perhaps most importantly, with ourselves.
Reading is a sustained and overt act of the will. There is nothing of the passive in it. The reader must be willing and able to surmount the spatial and nexus of the everyday in order to place her sensibility in the time and space of the author’s creation. While the author is, prima facie, in a position of authority, the reader, nonetheless, must play the active companion on the mutual journey called a book. At its best, reading is a form of transcendental exchange, an extended interplay of shifting roles in which the reader summons from her experience the partners, the players who populate the author’s realm, who bring the dance to life. At its deepest, this act of communication becomes an act of communion: of author with reader, of writer with self, of reader with a more expansive notion of life and one’s place within it.
Any effort with such a payoff is not easily won, of course. Reading, even on a less-than-sublime level, requires an attentiveness, an active engagement with the material at hand. It requires time; it requires thought; it requires discipline and focus and commitment, all commodities in woefully scarce supply these harried days. Reading is quintessentially autonomous and intentional. We come to a book as to a lover, in a willful act of surrender.
And, as Birkerts points out, reading is an intensely private activity: the images and emotions we bring to our reading are ours alone; our experience is a singularity, unlike that of any other reader, unlike even the author’s intent. And so we wend our solitary way through the thicket of words, skittering past a dull landscape, lingering over the sunrise of a particular sentence, following the author’s trail, but always marking a unique path, leaving footsteps all our own.
The private, the time-consuming, the arduous – who partakes of activities such as these today? We earn praise for our marathons of the body, our hours logged at the office, but who gives us laud for mastering “Ulysses” or Henry James? Perhaps this is because the results, the payoff, for such efforts remain essentially personal. We are enriched, enhanced, expanded by our reading, but such benefits adhere to the individual in a most gradual and intimate way, and are unlikely to inspire envy, much less imitation, in others.
Birkerts’ argument against electronic media rests on the premise that we experience it in a fundamentally different way than when we read. We seem to prefer a quick shower in the flashing stream of images and sound to a languorous bath in a limpid pool of print. The new media wash over us, but do not penetrate the surface. The sensation is superficial, not substantive. His calculus is simple: the more claims on our attention, the less time devoted to any one source, the shallower our interaction. And so we arrive at a diminution of experience, of exchange. The perversity, so the argument goes, is that while we are more connected than ever to each other via fax, e-mail, voice mail, and the myriad elements that make up our multiple-point communication web, we are less connected in a deep and fundamental way with each other – and ultimately, of course, with ourselves. We have replaced interchange with interaction, sacrificed sensibility for sensation.
The web of shallow connectedness extends to narrative space as well. The notion of boundary, of binding, blurs with the advent of hypertext. Electronic works can link infinitely, one to another to another, as Net surfers well know. Our sense of a work’s integrity, its finitude, is under attack. There are those on the digital frontier who seem to herald a return to the literary culture of the middle ages, a world in which the effort of the individual merges with that of the collective, in which authorship consists primarily of glosses, of marginalia, my little links appended to yours. What happens then to point of view, to “author-ity,” to genius? I am happy – albeit temporarily – to relinquish my sense of self through the act of reading a writer of talent. I don’t seek to join her in the act of creation. Within the confines of the text, I acknowledge her authorial hegemony and am content to play my supporting role of reader/interpreter. When it comes to aesthetic experiences, I do not seek to surf the endless wave, meandering indefinitely in an infinite narrative sea. We are finite beings, after all, and I suspect we prefer our books to mirror ourselves, with beginnings, with middles, and with ends.
Isn’t part of the problem here sheer terror at the amplitude of the data that threaten to engulf us? Do we fear that the breadth of the knowledge pool will reduce its depth; that we will wade further, but swim less in our information ocean; that we will lose what Birkerts calls “the depth experience”? Will we simply succumb to the overload? Do we harbor a sensible suspicion that our interactions with data, and ultimately with each other, may become more frequent, yet more fleeting, and, perhaps, less consequential? Does plenitude of information imply a paucity of substance? Does the velocity of an exchange shape its content? With ubiquitous information and omnipresent communication technologies, will we value less what we have in superfluity? Will the information web become an all-enveloping cocoon we are loathe to leave, from which we are unable to extricate ourselves?
Much, much of what Birkerts says rings true. I consumed his book in great draughts – ravished by his prose, seduced by his thesis. Yet, as is so often with passionate encounters, in the sobriety of morning, a few doubts having crept in, I find myself wishing to assert a slightly different point of view and chart a somewhat independent course. After all, ardent bibliophile that I am, I also purport to be an evangelist for the application of technology to education.
The bards of earlier oral cultures must have despised the first written texts. “But there’s no voice in them,” they must have cried, “where’s the sound of the human voice?” And they must have speculated that with such texts around soon no one would be able to remember works of epic length – and they were right, of course, in this. But what they failed to see, as we, too, fail to see through our tears of lamentation over print’s demise, is what there is to be gained. Yes, they – we – lost the ability to memorize 10,000 lines of poetry. But written texts made it possible for us to have enough literature around so that we could actually forget what we had read. The masters of one paradigm always abhor its successor. Monks of the scriptoria and other such upholders of the medieval status quo decried the first printed works, for, in the words of one, “The pen is a virgin, the printing press a whore.” But that very same naughty press made possible a flood of books, of broadsides, of documents that bore up new notions of individualism, of human rights, of democracy in the rising tide of literacy, which attended its wake. I believe the new media will bestow some similar gift to humanity – we just don’t know what it will be.
And yet we lovers of the elegance of the Palatino font, of the crisp white page, of the glossy dust jacket, the stamped binding, the four-square corners of that wonder, the book, cannot help an occasional aesthetic shudder at the sight of pixelated letters on a phosphorescent screen. Our fingers yearn for the decisiveness of a turned page, but instead we get a tiny scroll bar ineptly governing a 6-inch window, exposing a fragment of the lurking, elusive, text that lies somewhere “behind.” Instead of shutting the covers with a satisfied snap, we are confronted with the dreary option of yet another click to yet another site in the yawning maw of the digitorium.
Books function as mental gymnasia – leisurely and expansive realms of intellectual and spiritual refreshment, while the province of the computer is regulated by MIPS, baud rates, and megahertz – the vocabulary of velocity. I don’t always like the digital world – it can seem so evanescent, so exigent, so ill-formed. Let’s remember, though, it’s all so new. As Robert Pinsky says, in a recent New York Times Book Review, it’s “an interesting infancy.” It will mature. It will improve. It will develop an aesthetic. But only if we make it so. My worry, often confirmed by popular culture, is that we prefer sedation to stimulus, quick fixes to systemic change, fast food instead of feasts. But I’m a hopeful sort – and I see some cause for optimism.
Our overlong honeymoon with interactive media is coming to a well-deserved end. Those of us who succumbed to its siren song now see our beloved in a clearer light, and a few wrinkles are showing. And those priests of the print culture who scorned the suitor may find their initial resistance abating once the garish hype falls away to reveal the reality – both good and bad – of the new media. And once the honeymoon is over, the real business of life can begin – a life in which both established and new media have their places. There are any number of articles, news stories, and conference papers proselytizing the wonders of educational technology. I won’t recapitulate them here. But I’m betting my career that we humanists, we lovers of the printed page, will find a way to not just make peace with, but to openly embrace the new media.
Perhaps the greatest mistake we could make is to be reductionist, to fail to see the shades of grey, to make an either/or decision. We need not choose between books and interactive media – between words and images and sound – we can have it all. We can quench our thirst from the fast-flowing fountain of images and sounds. Our spirits can be restored from the deep well of reading. Indeed, we need both experiences. And perhaps we can also envision a new form of expression that plots a middling course, taking the best of both realms. Could we pick from both orchards and create a new hybrid; one that borrows the virtues of each medium and uses them to inform a new aesthetic – an aesthetic based on the rigor, the deliberation, the grace of print, and the passion, the immediacy, the delight of image?
To do so, though, we must be attentive, we must be responsible, we must wake up. We cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the rash of the new, nor stultified by the creaky ways of the past. Let’s read and watch, reflect and interact, meditate and mediate, be solitary and connect. In doing so, we will expand our capacity to do more, we will broaden our vision so that we see more, we will open our hearts and feel more. Let us embrace the new forms while we are enriched by the tradition – the glory – of the old. Let’s learn from, let’s live with, let’s love it all.
Susan Saltrick is Director of New Media for John Wiley & Sons. This article was delivered as a presentation at the AAHE Roundtable Conference in Washington, DC, this past March. The author retains the copyright for this article.
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