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The Gutenberg Elegies: Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age [Hardcover]

Sven Birkerts
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

22 May 1995
Discussing in personal and cultural terms the values of reading, and examining what may be lost as society turns towards CD-ROM, hypertext and audio books, the critic Sven Birkerts, whose essays and reviews have appeared in "The New York Times Book Review", "The Atlantic" and "Harper's", offers a defence of the place of reading and the printed word in the face of rapid technological advances. He argues that we are living in a state of intellectual emergency - an emergency caused by our willingness to embrace new technologies at the expense of the printed word. As we rush to get on-line, as we make the transition from book to screen, we are turning against some of the core premises of humanization. The printed page and the circuit-driven information technologies are not related - for Birkerts they represent fundamentally opposed forces, and in their inevitable confrontation our deepest values will be tested.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (22 May 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057119849X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571198498
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.2 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 613,125 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars NO FATE 18 Aug 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Gutenberg era is dead. The Electronic era is here to stay. It's a new world we have to face. If you have children, they belong to the "Downloading" generation. I suggest you read this book first, if you want to understand how far away your children navigate in an ocean of unknown past and stormy future. Sven Birkerts is the best navigator and he deserves our appreciation.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where we've come from where we're going 23 May 2007
If you've ever felt that you're becoming and old fool because you care more about your old paperbacks than the latest instalment of Lost, then Sven is the man to put the iron back in your soul.No cultural reletavism, no pandering to the cleverness of the computer nerd.Reading is King,Sven tells you why.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Did we read the same book? 25 Oct 2004
By amazon3131 - Published on
I encountered this book as part of my sister's college courses. I loved it; she struggled with it, but eventually grasped the point (and got an A+ on her essay, if memory serves).

But I was looking through the essays and comments by other reviewers, and I wondered -- Did we read the same book?

I didn't see a technophobic don't-read-it-online argument; I found an intriguing series of comments on what happens to when readers encounter something alien, and what happens to a culture when what used to be "normal" is now "alien."

Were any of the rest of you forced to attempt Chaucer's Tales in the transliterated, but still semi-original Middle English? Did you find it difficult?

The literary difference between Chaucer and 1900 is approximately the same difference between 1800 and now. We've gained a lot -- you can have my Mac when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers -- but we've also lost some things that we used to take for granted.

For example, have any of you slaughtered an animal for meat, or even watched someone else do it? Have any of you used an outhouse every day of every year, because there wasn't an alternative? Have you experienced the fear that comes with the knowledge that any illness or injury, no matter how minor, might kill someone? Have you lived in a culture wherein a woman taking a walk at night, or traveling unaccompanied, was assumed to be having illicit sex? (Think about the woman who marries Proteus at the end of Shakespeare's _Two Gentleman from Verona_: Do you really think she would have agreed to marry him if she had any other choice?)

All of that was once normal. It's not any more. Our books have changed along with our culture.

And just as I struggled through Chaucer, Sven Birkerts says that younger students are struggling through older classics like _The Scarlet Letter_, not because the Internet has made us stupid, but because our notions of acceptable sexual behavior and gender roles and family roles and all of the other things that make up "normal" have changed so dramatically that the situations and character responses no longer seem plausible to the modern ear.

(Can you imagine what an educated 1800's person would make of modern works? They'd be as lost with a 2004 novel as the "media generation" is lost with an 1800s novel.)

For what it's worth, that's what I read in this book: that what was understood for centuries as common cultural ground is no longer shared by everyone in our modern world, and, as a result, our literary heritage -- the surviving communications from ancestral generations to subsequent ones -- is less accessible to this generation than it ever was before.

I thought it was a good book, and I'd like to suggest that you read it, too, and see what it says to you.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An elegant elegy 26 Aug 1999
By A Customer - Published on
Birkerts has created both an insightful personal history and an intelligent defense of history and literature. It is perhaps telling that the reviews appearing from other readers are themselves literate and considered, even when criticizing. Clearly, his writing inspired intelligent responses from readers; this may be the highest tribute one could pay any author.
I was led to this book by booksellers of the "Wooden Spoon" type, i.e., proprietors of used-book stores who stubbornly insist on old-fashioned, or possibly historic, standards of both literature and salesmanship. (The Wooden Spoon remains a haven. I'm sure this would please the author.)
Those sympathetic to Birkerts (and who cannot feel at least some affinity for him and the world he is mourning?) will recognize the type of bookman he describes, a type to which he himself belongs: friendly, perhaps a bit curmudgeonly, and always willing to talk with a serious reader.
One aspect of reading which is mentioned but not explicitly discussed is the degree of human interaction which reading engenders. Contrary to the notion of the reclusive bookworm, most serious readers have a gregarious streak that shows itself in "deep" conversation. The loss of the ability to read deeply suggests a concurrent loss of the ability to interact deeply with other people. The very nature of his writing, and the responses herein, suggest a reason for hope. He cannot, after all, be alone in seeking a "deep" connection.
It is comforting to know that bastions of literature yet remain, in some few bookshops and in the minds of writers like Sven Birkerts.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The End(s) of Reading 14 Nov 1996
By A Customer - Published on
by Andrew Stauffer

University of Virginia

Sven Birkerts doesn't approve of what you're doing
right now. Reading (or writing) an on-line review of his
recent book, _The Gutenberg Elegies_, is like discussing
an exercise program over hot fudge sundaes: we are
participating in the burgeoning electronic culture that
Birkerts urges his readers to resist. He recommends we
turn off the computer, stop our superficial surfing
through web sites and TV channels, curl up somewhere with
a good book, and -- here's the hard part -- actually read
the thing.

Birkerts argues that reading books has become
difficult for us, precisely because of our saturation
with electronic communications media. Television began
the destruction of reading; the computer and its
electronic attendants have arrived to finish the job.
As Birkerts' argues compellingly, the decline of the
printed word means the tranformation fo the reading
experience, which involves the deep and deliberately slow
processes of imaginative thought. Such experience is
undone by our desire for increasingly rapid movement
across large arrays of text and images -- a desire both
inflamed and fulfilled by evolving systems of electronic

In _The Gutenberg Elegies_, Birkerts claims his place
in a long and noble line of embattled humanists who have
refused the seductions of the technological. According
to Plato, the Egyptian god who introduced writing as a
new technology praised its usefulness as an aid to memory
and wisdom. The king of Egypt, however, took a different
view. He saw the destructive potential of this new form
of communication, which would eradicate the need for
memory and the more patient routes to wisdom. Birkerts
similarly asserts grave doubts about the electronic
dispensations and sunny reassurances of such modern
divinities as Bill Gates and Nicholas Negroponte.
He asks us to tally our losses as we turn from ink marks
on paper to strands of binary code flowing through
microchips. Like the Egyptian king, he fears that we
will learn to access archives without
using our memories, and to command information without
possessing wisdom. We will forget, Birkerts maintains,
the importance of the private reading experience to the
development of our secular souls.

We are unlikely to get a more eloquent champion of the sheer
pleasures of reading books. Birkerts devotes his first
seven chapters to the delightful sensual and mental
phenomonology of the reading process. This is a book
that makes you want to read more books, not by inflicting
guilt so much as by reminding you of the unique
satisfactions they -- including _The Gutenberg Elegies_
itself -- can provide.

The second half of the book considers our "proto-
electronic" age and the slick beasts that slouch towards
Silicon Valley to be born. As the father of a 5-year-old, Birkerts is
particularly anxious about the evolution of human
interaction in the coming decades. Often his book seems
less of an elegy for something that is dead than a
prophetic announcement that the moment of choice has
arrived. In his happier moments, Birkerts
hopes we may still stem the tide of electronic images and
sounds, assert our love of printed materials, return to
that comfortable chair with a cloth-and-paper codex in
hand, and start reading again.

"Reading," for Birkerts, means reading novels. However,
asserting this as an essential activity of humanity is
historically problematic. Novels began to appear only
about 200 years ago, and were themselves greeted by fierce
denunciations from moral leaders, who saw this new
entertainment as a corrupter of souls, an unwholesome
distraction from more serious (i.e., Biblical) reading.
Birkerts position curiously parallels this
one, in that he emphasizes the "soul-making" importance
of literature, now facing its successor in the form of
the unholy electronic multimedia display. Is the novel
another shell we've outgrown, or are we abandoning it, as
Birkerts claims, "at our peril?" Birkerts neglects the
similarly short history of the private reading private
reading experience he champions, itself a luxury of the
upper and rising middle classes of the past two centuries, who
could afford literacy, leisure, and light to read by.

One can only praise _The Gutenberg Elegies_ as a moving
record of one man's ongoing struggle with our brave new world.
Even Birkerts' blind spots -- his inability to appreciate
anything technological, his insufficient consideration of
history -- are the result of his passionate sincerity.
Everywhere his prose reminds us of its writer's commitment to
intelligent human discourse: our birthright, which we may
be trading away for a mere mess of data.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS 22 April 2000
By Rick Pierce from Univ. of Pitt at Bradford - Published on
Occasionally while I was reading Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies, something inside me would repeat the words, "a voice crying out in the wilderness." I first came across this image in the Old Testament. I think it appears in Isaiah and is repeated by Christ in one, if not more than one, of the gospels. If I remember correctly, Christ says that this image was Isaiah prophesying the life of John the Baptist. The voice I heard said the words stolidly and slowly with a pause after "voice" and "out." "A voice, crying out, in the wilderness." It still does.
And while I don't mean to liken Birkerts to John the Baptist or suggest that he is the immediate predecessor of a messianic figure, I do think the Old Testament image is fitting. Sven Birkerts is a sort of voice crying out in the wilderness. Only his wilderness is not the harsh deserts of the Middle East but the one that's the same as our's--the new technological wilderness of the infant millennium.
Published in 1984, before the arrival of the millennium, The Gutenberg Elegies is a collection of personal essays in which Birkerts examines his relationship to reading and writing and meditates on what the influx of electronic data, particularly the Internet, means and will mean to literature in the future. Simply put, Birkerts does not like new technologies. He believes that their ability to connect people is over-rated, if not something to be feared. While he can not disagree with the fact that electronic media such as e-mail and the Internet make people more connected, Birkerts feels they diminish the quality of our connections. He thinks the sheer number of avenues with which we can communicate scatters our attention and drains our energy and results in shallower interactions.
Of course, there are those who say that Birkerts is over-reacting. And doubtless, there are still others who think that Birkerts' writings are sparked by a self-centered fear that the new technologies are going to mean the end of his livelihood and take away power from the elite literary class he and other writers (and publishers) belong to. I disagree with those who maintain that Birkerts is writing out of self-interest. I think he is simply a man who loves to read and write and is genuinely concerned about the future of these activities.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A passionate and vigorous defense of the art of book-reading 25 Sep 1996
By A Customer - Published on
For those of us in the book-writing business (I am a technical writer), this book articulates the fears and suspicions many of us share about the impact of electronic media. Birkerts makes the strong case that the difference between hardcopy books and on-line documents is not merely the difference between 'old' and 'new'; rather, that there are significantly different underlying mechanisms, both physical and psychological, which directly impact what is being learned, and how.

Birkerts makes his "ethos" argument by relating his personal history of learning to love book-reading, and of his years managing bookstores, of becoming a writer, and of teaching writing and literature in schools.
He began to notice that students coming to his classes increasingly weren't "getting it" in reading literature: they had lost the ability to relate the themes, the "great narratives," of human history to their own lives.
Much of this blame Birkerts attributes to a lack of sustained focus, an inability by the students to follow long and complex rhetoric within traditional literary structures.
And Birkerts lays the blame for this directly at the feet of electronic media, where reading materials are scanned, not read; where the rush of information overwhelms the critical faculties needed for evaluation, reflection, and integration.

For Birkerts, the difference between reading a book -- a physical structure with both substance and texture -- and reading the same material in an on-line format is the way with which the reader can and will interact with that material. "The Gutenberg Elegies" posits that the difference is not just one of experience and style, but that the physics and form of on-line presentation make sustained focus and contemplation nearly impossible. Birkerts writes,

"Wisdom can only survive as a cultural ideal where
there is a possibility of vertical consciousness. Wisdom has nothing to
do with the gathering or organizing of facts -- this is basic. Wisdom
is a seeing *through* facts, a penetration to the underlying laws and
patterns. It relates the immediate to something larger -- to a context,
yes, but also to a big picture that refers to human endeavor *sub specie
aeternitatis*, under the aspect of eternity. To see through data, one
must have something to see through *to*... It is one thing to absorb a fact, to situate
it alongside other facts in a configuration, and quite another to
contemplate that fact at leisure, allowing it to declare its connection
with other facts, its thematic destiny, its resonance."

The Gutenberg Elegies is a stimulating discussion of the impact of electronic media on our culture for now and for the future, and a battle-cry for those who don't want the art of book-reading crushed by technology.
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