The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

by Sven Birkerts

Faber and Faber, Inc.
50 Cross Street, Winchester, MA 01890 USA
1995, ISBN 0-571-19849-X, 244 pages
$22.95 US, $31.50 Canada, 12.99 pounds UK

--Reviewed by Dean Blobaum, University of Chicago Press The plural in the title [Elegies] is telling. This book is more than one thing. It is splintered into several facets, probably reflecting the origin of some of its content in previously published essays, and perhaps a rush to catch the media wave churned up by the changes in electronic communication, the public arrival of the internet, and the impact of digital processes on the publishing industry. At any rate, this book is at least three things: the story of how Sven Birkerts became a book reviewer, a passionate defense of reading and print culture, and an attack on electronic media.

To the extent that any question arches over the whole it is this: "What is the place of reading, and of the reading sensibility, in our culture as it has become?" [p.15] That place is shrinking, Birkerts thinks, due to the saturation of electronic media into every level and moment of our lives. Birkerts is out to resist the tide of electronic media -- to "refuse it" as he says in the last words of the book. He is out to defend the act of reading, to defend the printed book, and to defend the literary culture that books and reading created. Reading, the book, and literary culture are endangered species, not only by electronic mass media, but also (and perhaps more critically) by the digitization and electronic manipulation of the written word and by its electronic transmission.

Like many of us, Birkerts likes nothing better than curling up with a good book and he is at his best describing the act of reading: the sensations of it, the obsession and addiction of it, the way a novel draws you in, the way a good novel becomes an imaginary place that you inhabit or that inhabits you during the reading and long after you've read the final page. Birkerts has closely observed the act of reading -- the act of himself reading -- and describes the phenomena vividly. The act of reading is the important thing. "I value the state a book puts me in more than I value the specific contents." [p.84] In reading the reader transcends everyday life, brings another world into being, and gains the sense that life has a unitary pattern to it.

While Birkerts's description of the state of reading shows that he has reflected long and deeply about it, his description of electronic media is impersonal and leans heavily on the thoughts of others. "I won't tire the reader" he writes, "with an extended rehash of the differences between the print orientation and that of electronic systems. Media theorists from Marshall McLuhan to Walter Ong to Neil Postman have discoursed upon these at length. What's more, they are reasonably commonsensical. I will therefore abbreviate." [p.121-22] What follows is a kind of Cliff's Notes for the Gutenberg Galaxy. Rehash.

This is disappointing. Birkerts's musings on reading were quite different; they were apparently the product of intense introspection, vibrant with experience and reflection. He got at what he wanted to get at -- the act reading. When he turns to electronic media however, he mostly turns away from the act of engagement with these media. Birkerts's take on electronic media follows a well-trodden path -- a rehash of media theory and broad generalizations about the effects of electronic media, making it the whipping boy for the ills of western society -- the decline in education, literacy, and literate culture; the financial straits of publishers; postmodernism in the arts; and the fight over the canon in literature. His thoughts on electronic media lack focus and originality.

I want to suggest two reasons why the book derails. First his rehash of electronic media is painted with so broad a brush -- or turned with so large a spatula, I guess -- that the differences between these media are ignored. When he discusses reading he explicitly states he is not concerned with all written media, nor even just books, nor even just literary works, but only literary fiction. But when he considers electronic media he excludes nothing, throwing into the mix computers, fax machines, books on tape, email, CD-ROM, television, camcorders, telephone answering machines, and more. This won't do. To fail to distinguish between different kinds of electronic media, because they all are based on manipulating electrons, is as fundamental a mistake as failing to distinguish between tax forms and novels, because they are both printed on paper.

As anyone knows who has experienced them both, broadcast media like radio and television are much different than point-to-point interactive media like computer-mediated-communication. Video, audio, and multimedia forms of electronic media are vastly different than the primarily text transmissions that constitute most of the traffic on the internet. Email is nothing like television, except for the incidental similarity that lights and colors appear on a screen. Generalizing across all these forms of media short-circuits the argument. Throughout the second half of this book one reads with a mental checklist at hand, evaluating after each assertion which, if any, of the various forms of electronic media the assertion might speak to.

The difference between broadcast and interactive media is fundamental and no computer experience is required to understand it. In 1932 Bertolt Brecht, writing about a new technology that was quickly becoming a mass media, said " . . . radio is one-sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship rather than isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers." [From "The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication," see The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, page 616.] It may have taken sixty years for that "vast network of pipes" to finally appear, and it may turn out to be pipes for the transmission of the written word rather than the spoken, but Brecht states succinctly the difference between broadcast and interactive media.

The difference has consequences. For instance, Birkerts complains that electronic media leads to a decline in the quality of verbal and written language, a preponderance of "simple linguistic prefab." [pg. 128] Does that apply to interactive communication over networks? Anyone who has been taken to task for an error of fact or grammar or logic in a posting knows that the level of discourse is not lowered to the least common denominator, rather it is raised to the level of the most vocal critic.

It's difficult to know if Birkerts has internet communication in mind when he generalizes about electronic media. It would no doubt come as a surprise to him that to participate in an electronic mailing list or a USENET group, if one chooses one's companions carefully, is to find oneself immersed every day in dialogue with intelligent, thoughtful, and literate people. Electronic discourse can be a celebration of literacy, of the close and careful reading of other people's prose, of the power of rhetoric and argument. Good internet forums achieve this every once in a while, or about at the same rate that you'll find a really good novel in this year's crop, or really great books in 2500 years of written culture.

The second problem that undercuts Birkerts's criticism of electronic media is an imprecision in the critical terms involved in these issues: language, the written word, and technology.

For example, Birkerts writes, "I speak as an unregenerate reader, one who still believes that language and not technology is the true evolutionary miracle." [p. 6] While I don't see why there could not be more than one evolutionary miracle, that's not the point. The point is that Birkerts is confused about what language is. Spoken language may be described as an evolutionary miracle; written language is a technology. Like the wheel or the lever it is a technology that is so everpresent in our lives that it is almost always transparent, forever seeming to collapse into that which it mediates -- spoken language. The Gutenberg Elegies is a argument against forms of communication that mediate our relationship to the written word. However, the written word is itself a technological mediation of the highest order.

The invention of writing was a profound reorientation of human being and human society, alongside of which the invention of moveable type or the digitization of print are fine tunings in an already radically-altered course. When Birkerts talks about technology he seems to mean only increasingly sophisticated machinery. Acting on his convictions, he tells us that he eschewed the computer and instead produced the manuscript of this book on an IBM Selectric. [p. 28] This is comically absurd. To be a writer -- or a reader -- is to be so deeply enmeshed in the technology of a symbolic system that to balk at using a computer to manipulate the technology of written language is to swallow dogs but strain out fleas, or however the expression goes.

Birkerts's arguments against electronic media may not be compelling, but his comments are always interesting and thought-provoking. His animus toward electronic media is so total that he is like a visitor from another planet, bringing a fresh perspective to a discussion saturated with conventional wisdom and cliche. For instance, Birkerts has an entirely different spin on the social consequences of electronic media: "Every acquiescence to the circuitry is marked by a shrinkage of the sphere of autonomous selfhood." [pg. 28] What others call a "community" or a "global village" created by electronic media and communication, Birkerts visualizes as a web of entanglement and entrapment. He fears the loss of privacy, peace and quiet, and self-sufficiency -- the world in which the act of reading takes place.

As a celebration of reading Gutenberg Elegies is an excellent book, staking out the vital place of reading in our culture. Birkerts's arguments against electronic media are neither insightful nor convincing, but I recommend reading them for the thoughts and counter-arguments they provoke. I am not, by the way, suggesting that electronic media is above criticism, far from it. The broad critical strokes deployed in the second half of this book just don't do the job. Criticism of electronic media requires the kind of care, introspection, and attention to difference and nuance that Birkerts put to good use in the book's first half. The new forms of electronic media -- the internet, interactive multimedia, electronic texts -- need careful and critical thinking about, if we are to understand just exactly what we are doing when we are reading, writing, or just cruising online. Above all, what we are doing needs thinking about.

May 7, 1995

Reviewed by Dean Blobaum

Copyright (c) 1995 by Dean Blobaum. All rights reserved. This review may be quoted in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of the US Copyright Act. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that no fee is charged for access and provided that this entire notice is carried and the author of the review is notified. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.