Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts

The subtitle of The Gutenberg Elegies is "The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age." Birkert's main premise is that ditching physical books for modern gadgets causes a reduced attention span and a general impatience with sustained inquiry. (p. 27) This loss of contemplative and cognitive power is a threat to all that makes us truly human.

My 1994 version was out-of-date in the sense that the internet was just beginning and Birkerts was still referring to cassette tapes and VHS recordings. But it was not out-of-date in its call to consider how much we are losing by giving ourselves completely over to digital media. In fact, in light of how much was not even on the scene when he wrote this book, his prophecies are surprisingly accurate.

The technologies of entertainment have arrived with great fanfare, diminishing audiences for the book, allowing watching and playing to supplant reading as a dominant home activity. . . . They not only take up time that might have once belonged to the book, but they make it harder, once we do turn from the screen. (p. 200) Amen to that!

While circuit and screen are ideal conduits for certain kinds of data - figures, images, cross-referenced information of all sorts - they are entirely inhospitable to the more subjective materials that have always been the stuff of art. That is to say, they are antithetical to inwardness. (193)

My favorite quote: I speak as an unregenerate reader, one who still believes that language and not technology is the true evolutionary miracle. (p. 6) Before texting was even born, Birkerts sensed that the need to provide information more speedily would erode our language.

This book reinforced my desire to read physical books as much as possible. But, alas, did not convince me to give up my e-reader. I am a slave to convenience after all. At times Birkerts is verbose and whiny, but I managed to slog through. More accessible titles on this subject are The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and Postmans' Amusing Ourselves to Death.

1 comment:

CLL said...

"Antithetical to inwardness..." Love that phrase. The Shallows is actually the reason I started my blog. With reading being my occupation, so to speak, it was important to me to help people understand the consequences of our habits. I had not heard of this book. Thanks for sharing it.