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The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading…

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994)

by Sven Birkerts

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"I've been to the crossroads and I've seen the devil there." Sven Birkerts in Gutenberg Elegies offers a lamentation for literature and a gnashing of teeth for the technological changes that will prevent future generations from savoring and devouring books. Gutenberg Elegies is a collection of 14 essays, after an introduction and with an additional ending essay which concludes and recaps the ideas. These essays tell the story of a strong relationship to, love of, and obsession with literature in book form. Each essay has a different take on this relationship to literature. The author explores aspects of, learning to read, enjoyment of reading, the nature of the reading life, the new electronic age, the critic's work, how we think, and the likely future of literature. Birkerts makes interesting and valid observations of how reading, writing and thinking are intertwined and should be glorified. However, I arrive at different conclusions than he does based on his observations. The strongest message I took away from this book was a meditation on the interconnection between reading, writing and thinking. This book review will explain how Gutenberg Elegies talks to me about making meaning through reading and writing. First I will discuss Birkerts' love of reading.

The first of the three parts is titled, "The Reading Self." The lead essay addresses how thought itself can be embodied in the written word. Already in this first essay, Birkerts laments the lost age we are leaving behind because of our new uses of video, internet and hypertext.

This first essay includes an itemized list of what we gain and lose through postmodern electronics. This essay broaches an important idea he has about a definite relationship between reading and thinking. He suggests that our ability to think is shaped by the experience of reading deeply of the correct body of literature. In "The Owl Has Flown" he also explains the connection between reading and thinking. Since it is important for us to think better, discussions of ways to improve thinking are valuable ideas to hear and consider. These points are well made should be shared widely. Next, he relates his love of literature.

The essay, "The Paper Chase" is a clear exposition of Birkerts intense love of the reading experience. This is conveyed though this autobiographical fragment that describes how he was transported, when young, by immersion in books. One aspect Birkerts comes back to again and again is how time is impacted when reading. He mentions how we are transported to a different time, or a frozen time. Also in "The Woman in the Garden" essay he talks about how time can be obliterated through reading. One sign of how strongly he was affected by reading were the occasions when tears would come to his eyes because of incidents in the book. Next he talks more about meaning and self.

In the essays "Paging the Self" and "The Shadow Life of Reading" Birkerts talks about self-formation. These offer good examples of how we interpret the meaning in books. Also, how our minds are formed and molded by exposure to books. He mentions how we each have traces of what we have read. So, he is saying we can see all the influences on a person by those traces of the books they read. In the essay "From the Window of a Train" more points are made about our growth through reading. There he mentions the ambiguities and entanglements that we encounter when engaged in the reading act. The next part of the book relates more directly with electronic communications technology.

The first essay in the second part tells how electronic mediated information processing destroys our historical perception. The additional essays in the second part critique electronic technologies including video, audio books, and hypertext. The four essays together of the second part clearly outline Birkerts' discomfort with technology in communications. A major concern for him is the mediation between the writer and the reader. Here again he demonstrates clear observations, but more questionable conclusions. This section is also the weakest because of his analysis of technology. Birkerts asserts that technology removes individuality from people. He also states that our ends and means are confused and driven by technology. These conclusions are based on his views of technology formulated when the essays were written. So the essays might need to be updated to take account of new technological interactions that exist today. The next section of the book gives the strongest warnings about the future.

The third and final part of the book, before the "Coda," is titled: "Critical Mass: Three Meditations." In the essay "The Western Gulf" he makes his assertion that things were better in the good old days. He states that we now have an impoverished culture. This is perhaps Birkerts' most extreme diatribe against all things modern. He even includes a screed against increased college and university enrollment. He says in the good old days college students could connect to people in the culture at large, and we have now lost that connection (174). Birkerts relates how the changes over the past few decades have rewritten how we apprehend reality (177). He talks about how electronic media is one of the negative influences that have wreaked havoc upon society (177). Next, Birkerts laments the place of writers in our modern world.

Birkerts asserts that the authors once had a more exalted position in society (184). He feels now our culture is controlled by moneychangers (184). He states that literature is dead in the societal perspectives (184). While he does admit that literature is a social construct, he implies that his view of literature is an extremely valuable way to conceive it. Another way he sees that society has changed in negative ways is the idea that romantic ideas are no longer respected. As explained next, Birkerts even feels the study of literature has fallen in quality.

An important concept Birkerts introduces is that the proper study of literature has been lost. He relates that there is no core by which to study literature (186). He gives the example of the obscenity trail of Lady Chatterley"fs Lover in 1960 in England. The experts who should have been able to define literature could not agree on a single definition (187). He talks about how Kernan blames this on philosophic tumults in the 20th century including Socialism, Marxism, feminism and postmodernism. Birkerts defends those conceptual efforts and sees them at least as attempting to offer some coherent philosophical frameworks. Birkerts accuses the collapse of coherent systems on the encroaching communications technologies. These technological changes have led to the printed page being less important in our world (188). In places Birkerts does mention his awareness that others disagree with some of his ideas.

The "Death of Literature" and "In the Narrowing Ledge" essays are somewhat self aware. Birkerts explains that he is somewhat divided in his views of these changes. But each essay tells of the losses we are suffering and what chances there might be for salvation. He states that we can not read literature as it is meant to be read. He says we can not make judgement about human character and values (192). He gives some good analysis of how writing and reading go together. He states that writers help readers see things in deeper ways (209). He expresses a sliver of optimism that postive change might return society to the way it was in the past. Birkerts expresses a possible hope that a type of back-draft might come that will resurrect the respect for and role of literature in our society. The final section wraps up the ideas in the book.

In the "Coda" Birkerts talks about soul, thinking, self awareness, mediation of the real and deep time. The "Coda" and "Introduction" served to bind the separate essays into a somewhat unified whole. I think they do a good job, especially given the general themes that connect the essays. Mostly the "Coda" was a recap of material covered fully in the essays. One new concept introduced, in the "Coda," is the aura. I understand aura to be somewhat like the idea of soul. He feels our mediated communication technology has a negative effect on our aura (226). Birkerts ends the book with a statement of his refusal to embrace the new technologies.

This book turned out to be very difficult to read. As individual essays they seem somewhat negative and contain an exhausting number of unpleasant diatribes. For me, what might be easy to tolerate in isolated essays becomes almost unbearable when strung together in 200 pages. I agree with most basic observations made by Birkerts. But when he goes on to draw conclusions from those observations, I often disagree. I feel the essays contain a common theme of nostalgia for the past and a harking back to the good old days. I however, do not believe those good old days of yesteryear ever existed. As a Black man, the good old days are anathema to me. When the privileged, mostly, men were able to sit in their studies and peruse the ancient tomes and enjoy the deep meaning of literature, my ancestors were slaving in the fields to make that leisure available to the select few.

In taking a cultural analytic approach to this book I ask what cultural conditions obtained for the writer that led him to make the assertions he made. My conclusions relate to the time and place and situations of the author's youth and development stages. Fortunately Birkerts offers autobiographical details and cues within this book. English was not his first language. As he acquired proficiency in English he discovered literature that could entertain and enlighten him as a beginning reader. As a critic making his living through his essays, Birkerts has an interest in sounding the warning bells about the loss of literature. While I agree society has transformed over the last 50 years, in large part due to technological changes, I would suggest our relationship to the written word has been undergoing continuous change over the last few hundred years. Next, I explain where I think Birkerts' conclusions might lack deeper context or understanding of technology's impact on our society.

I disagree with an unspoken assumption that there was a great deal of reading for depth and philosophical growth before the second half of the 20th century. I believe that most literacy in the past couple of hundred years in Europe and America was driven by a need to read the Bible. I accept the statistics that Birkerts quotes that more books are published and purchased now than at anytime in the past. I interpret this to mean exactly what it says. Birkerts dismisses the fact as irrelevant. Another assumption is that somehow deep reading in the past made people better. Instead I would assert that the problems we have today which include political, environmental, economic, social and technological ones are due to failures of our past leaders and populations in making wise decisions. I do not assert we are any better today, I am only arguing against the good old days.

In "The Owl Has Flown" Birkerts has interesting comments about the "ermeneutics circle" (75). He is saying people need to have opinions about means and ends. This is a good harking back to discussions led by Professor Giotta about ends versus means in the growth of communication technologies. Birkerts states we have lost the assumption of ends. I would instead hope that we can reach conclusions without accepting the ends that past generations accepted as givens. Today religion and privileges of wealth and power are not givens, and we should continually question the ends believed by past generations. Again and again, in the essays, Birkerts relates missing the stability offered by the structures of the past.

Another point of stability that Birkerts states has been upended is Kernan's "knowledge tree" (189). I would agree that it has been upended and I applaud that upending. The knowledge tree as conceived by Kernan and Birkerts is a division of the world into static, arbitrary separate branches, of intellectual study, that often led scholars down wrong paths. For example, to say that philosophy must be separate from linguistics or natural science is a wrong division of the world. Birkerts admires a former exalted state of authors that he believes once existed.

In "The Narrowing Ledge" essay Birkerts explains his belief that movies like Youngblood Hawke from 1964 would not be made today because writers don't have the respect they once did. I immediately thought about Moulin Rouge from 2001where the protagonist is a writer. There are numerous other movies made about writers, some unflattering, some of them not exactly novelists, like Adaptation (2002), The Ghost Writer (2010), Anonymous (2011). I list these to indicate that Birkerts' conclusions sometimes miss the point. He also asserts that editors today have different roles, than they did in the good old days. He says that now they are just commercial businessmen. I instead believe that printing has historically been a business enterprise. I would actually suspect there is more not-for-profit printing going on today than at anytime in the past.

Finally, here are some of Birkerts' most damning critiques of the changing relation to literature. He bemoans that with new ways of relating to media we don't have that overwhelming loss of connection to the present. He also states we lose what makes us spirit creatures. We are overwhelmed with utilitarian pursuits and forget primal terms of existence. He states that our immersion in the electronic media culture instead of literature causes a loss of our individuality (202). Because we do not engage in the subjective immersion of reading literature we are lesser beings. He asserts the the computer screen is incompatible with the special change in time that is accessible through literature. He even states we will lose our ability to pursue meaning because we are not deeply reading literature. Birkerts makes many great observations and a large number of philosophical conclusions about the world we live in today. I think the observations are valuable but suggest taking a pinch of salt with the conclusions.

The strongest conclusions put forth by Birkerts alienated me from accepting any of his ideas without thorough examination. For example the implication that we only do serious thinking when we are lost in the imagined world of literature strikes me as somewhat irresponsible. Today, as I worked on this review I had the computer on in the background watching a live broadcast of protestors at a Walmart warehouse who were risking arrest in support of workers there. Last night I gave a nonviolence training to 100 of these protestors and Union organizers and was fascinated to see how the technology of live video recording and broadcasting made it possible for me to watch the live interaction between my students and the police about 100 miles away from where I was typing. So while I was engaging in many bad technologies according to Birkerts, I would argue that my engagement in the real world is sometimes even more valuable that being lost in the deep time of great literature. So, while I would agree we make meaning through writing and reading, we also make meaning by acting in the world and using new communication technologies. ( )
1 vote superant | Mar 31, 2012 |
I enjoyed reading this book, but while I thought he made some good points, there were many times where I felt he came across as a hysterical technophobe. Least convincing argument—that people’s lives are becoming so incredibly boring that soon there will be nothing interesting for writers to write about anymore. ( )
1 vote hvhay | Aug 16, 2007 |
The past and future of books and reading--intoxicating reading of its own. ( )
  edwin.gleaves | Jul 10, 2006 |
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The premise that fueled the writing of these essays -- and which also holds them together -- is simple, if drastic, and needs to be declared straight away.
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