06 January 2013

The Gutenberg Elegies; Sven Birkerts

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic CultureThe Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Culture by Sven Birkerts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is almost 20 years old, and despite some clearly dated passages (the clunkiness of the computers... no smartphones or e-readers), the thinking is still pretty prescient. For example, Birkerts talks about multitasking - today we take that for granted (as I type this, I'm also watching the evening news). Is this a good thing? He posits not: we miss that inner voice, the opportunity to hear and think without mediation of some sort.

One question that kept popping to mind was the question of who the readers are. Not of this book, but in general. He opens with an example of a class in short stories he taught that didn't work because the students lacked the ability to focus on anything "dense" (my word, not his), anything that required thought and slow exploration. That's probably true today, but even 30 years ago it wasn't easy to get into Henry James. Ditto 50... 70 years ago. People may have owned James' books, but did they read them (much like people bought Hawking's A Brief History of Time, but it's unlikely many read, much less fully understood it). So is there really something to mourn here?

It's definitely an issue that needs to be revisited every so often: what is the affect of all this interactivity? is it really 'good', or is it somehow changing society in ways we don't like/need/will regret? His comments about literature, and how historical fiction enables modern writers to give their characters more of an inner life also resonated, as I'm seeing more and more YA and MG fiction written in the 80s, where we didn't have cell phones or computers. A growing trend? or will authors come to grips with how to write about today's youth in a way that won't sound as dated as 80s contemporary fiction does now?

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