More like a book I’m skimming, skipping around in , and picking up whenever I’m waiting for the computer at work to finish a task. Being a collection of essays, Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age is perfect for such nonlinear, frequently interrupted reading.
Essays are the nonfiction equivalent of short stories. They’re served not as full feasts, or hearty meals, but rather as little bite-size morsels. They’re the literary tapas — eat as much or as little as you like, in whatever order you like, whenever you’d like. I have fondness for essays, and despite their similarity to short stories, a preference for them over their fiction cousins. I like the mixture of hard facts and authorial authenticity/familiarity that essays convey. In contrast, short stories, and fictional works in general, not only necessarily invent people and events, but, I feel, also “invent” their authors. That is, insofar as fictional works reveal their authors’ actual circumstance, actions, or beliefs, the revelations are always buried beneath a layer of plausible deniability. Did the author really say that, or only the narrator? Feel that? Do that? If fiction holds a mirror to reality, then it holds only distorted, polish bronze to the makers of that mirror. That’s certainly not to say that essayists effect no ambiguity, or put no distance between themselves, their works, and their readers. I simply prefer the essayist’s method for doing so: by selection of topics, omissions or filters of content, rather than labeling the output as fictitious.
But back to The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkets is indeed elegiac for the experience of reading as an engagement with physical materials (e.g. books), for the intensive (re)reading that the proliferation of information has, in his opinion, made impossible. As a reviewer sums up the book, “In our zeal to embrace the wonders of the electronic age, are we sacrificing our literary culture? Renowned critic Sven Birkerts believes the answer is an alarming yes.” I disagree with Birkets on almost all the points he makes, but since neither of us presents any actual data for our point-of-view, I think it’s more entertaining to point out two things:
1) Birkets published this book in 1994, long before any e-books, e-readers, tablets, iphones, or even laptops penetrated the market. If he wrote an elegy for reading then, must he be replacing the embalming fluid sloshing around in the corpse of literary reading for the umpteenth time by now?
2) Birkets’s book is today available as an e-book. Check it out on Amazon.