Second Look Books: The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by Sven Birkerts (Faber and Faber, $22.95). This book review was first published in February 1995. It includes a discussion of “Out of Control” by Kevin Kelly.

Sven Birkerts is one of those rarest of rare birds, an essayist and critic with something to say. He is the author of three books of criticism, most recently “American Energies: Essays on Fiction,” and he has won the coveted National Book Critics Circle Citation for Excellence. Although some of the pieces in “The Gutenberg Elegies” were previously published in various critical literary journals, and some were given as addresses to scholarly and political groups, they fit together in a brilliantly seamless string.

And though Birkerts goes astray slightly in one long chapter devoted to a reminiscence about the early days of his writing career, “Elegies” is must reading for any civilized person struggling with the current dilemmas and problems of American cultural life. Birkerts’ collection is a powerful call to intellectual arms for those of us concerned with the fate of the book, with the future of reading in America, and with the direction and tendencies of American publishing.

Birkerts argues powerfully that there is currently a state of emergency that, as we shift from print to screen, threatens to overturn one of the core premises of humanism in our time. It seems that in the blink of an eye our culture has begun to transform itself in its entirety. The stable and authoritative hierarchy of the printed page, heretofore one of the givens of knowledge in the world, threatens to collapse and disappear in the face of freshly minted circuits, sound bites, fax machines, car phones, TV screen, E-mail, and a web of internets that makes simultaneity and impermanence primary physical and mental realities. While the displacement of the book by the screen is not as yet total, and may never be total, the large-scale tendency is apparent to anyone who cares to look.

And it just isn’t a theoretical change. Children sit huddled in a corner playing their video games, businessmen and women ride to work with the buzz of faxes in their ears and as whirr from the car phone. Families, communities, individuals and civic groups are replaced by interest groups, opinion polls, victims and consumers.


The plus and minus of postmodernism

Birkerts tries hard to include a few “plusses” in his evaluation of the postmodern condition. He cites, as advantages of all this screen information and sound bite, an increased awareness of the “big picture”, a global context made up of extraordinary interrelations and complexity. In addition, he refers to our seeming new ability to hold and entertain serial and simultaneous neural stimuli, which often makes for an erosion of old biases, both cultural and racial.

In the loss column, Birkerts cites the undoubted sense of the fragmentation of time, or the wearing away of the so-called durational experience, a depth phenomenon we know as reverie or contemplation. In common-sense terms, he means good old- fashioned wonder and awe, the deep, abiding sense of self and world that is the springboard an soul of Western philosophy. How many of us have time to watch sunsets, spend a week in the woods with our kids, or even think for an hour or so? AS a related phenomenon, Birkerts mentions reduced attention spans and a general lack of faith in sustained and rational inquiry. It wasn’t just a Willy Horton sound bite that got Gorge Bush in the White House. Before that it was “Where’s the Beef?”

Deeply related, although different, is our current lack of faith in institutions and the historical narratives that give our lives coherence and shape. As history fades away from us in favor of images and products, what we share with our fellow human beings becomes no more than current fashion.

Although much of this sounds abstract, it is not. More and more books are sold in the marketplace, but fewer and fewer of them are serious, being mostly diet, self-help, astrology, smut or celebrity bios. There are no public forms for sustained and rational debate. And Birkerts argues that the situation is getting bleaker. Everyone in publishing, editing, or teaching agrees that it is harder than ever to get something good or decent published or read.


The future of the book

Mega-mergers in the publishing industry have turned the bottom line into the only line. Acquisitions editors are under the gun to produce “products” which sell, regardless of quality, and regardless of any ethical duty to do otherwise. Most recently Jonathan Yardley in “The Washington Post” has called the trend the “Warnerization” of the fiction industry, referring to the huge deal between Warner Books and Brandon Tartikoff (a television programmer), which was intended to produce “books” that could be turned into films and TV projects. It was, and is, Warner Books that has brought us “Scarlett” and “The Bridges of Madison County”, and which threatens the industry daily with “concept fiction”, work with a skin of plot and character that can be hung on a more profitable skeleton.

And while serious readers still exist, they are a dwindling and aging group. Among the under-30 crowd, book reading and book buying have, demonstrably, fallen off rapidly and precipitously. And as information technologies expand screen techniques, providing us with “hypertext” and “interactive” literature, who could guess how many kids will even learn how to read, much less buy, collect and cherish books and the words they contain?

Certainly the rash of corporate conglomerate takeovers in publishing has accelerated us into a society in which the notion of economics has replaced the notion of culture. Publishers no longer care whether it is James Joyce of Rush Limbaugh they are publishing, so long as the numbers are there. But blame must be adduced in favor of the electronic media as well. Entertainment—MTV, video games, cable television and VCR’s have all diminished audiences for books, and made leisure preferable to the work and concentration required for reading itself. Watching and playing have replaced talking and reading.

Already there is CD-ROM technology on the market that “enhances” the reading experience, shorthand for “glosses and illustrates”, a way to break the perceived tedium of reading by a generation of students unable to concentrate. Don’t worry about “Hamlet”; just pull up the screen and see some famous actors and actresses who’ve played the part, see some clips from the movies, and there you have it—and interactive book.



The Faustian hive

The forces of cultural change are complex and interrelated. We are no longer a society of individuals. One cannot help but see the coming connectedness (at first indicated by connectedness in email, fax, telephone answering devices, computer networks), a state of psychological titillation referred to as being “online”. Already word processing has replaced typewriting, just as typing replaced handwriting before that.

In the words of Kevin Kelly, executive editor of “Wired,” the online Bible, “I live on computer networks. There is no central keeper of knowledge in a network, only curators of particular views. People in a highly connected yet deeply fragmented society can no longer rely on a central canon for guidance. They are forced into the modern existential blackness of creating their own culture, beliefs, markets and identity…”

As far as Kelly is concerned, he can do without the book entirely, relying instead on the elements of electronic writing space, the Internet where the text is conversation with millions of participants. Kelly says that, “many participants prefer the quality of writing on the Net to book writing because Net-writing is of a conversational peer-to-per style, frank and communicative, rather than precise and overwritten.”

Kelly has even written a recent book extolling the virtues of networked neo-biological technology, a world in which software, animation, programmed trading and screens approximate a biological entity (“Out of Control”, Addison-Wesley, $28).


The forgetfulness of being

The great German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger postulated that modern man was plagued by a “forgetfulness of being”. He was speaking of that condition of modern life characterized by a lack of spirituality, an unawareness of the depth of experience, the kind of experience characterized by walking fatefully out into a dark night to watch the stars for hours, for signs of meteors.   It is the kind of experience emphasizing depth, meaning, inwardness and duration.

Being “online” is the opposite of that kind of experience. Being “online” emphasizes electrical connection and instantaneousness–an inability to be aware of the passing of time.   Ours is a world in which it is unthinkable to walk five miles to visit a friend, unthinkable to give ourselves over to the planting of an orchard.

Birkerts asks the question asked by Walker Percy: “Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century—an age in which he has succeeded in satisfying his every material desire?” The answer is that we have, by creating, utilizing and relying on technology, cut ourselves off from the primary things that give meaning and purpose to life. We have cut ourselves off from beauty, love, from true passion, and from the spiritual.