Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Faber and Faber, 2006. originally published in 1994. ISBN: 978-0-86547-957-9.

I went to a library conference two years ago on the topic of the future of the book. One of the main speakers, a librarian at a major university thought there wasn't a future for the book. Most of the people at the conference thought the future for the book was bleak. The only really dissenting voices were professors from the humanities. Does the book have a future? Does reading have a future? These are some of the concerns addressed by Sven Birkerts in his book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts focuses mostly on serious fiction and its future.

The Gutenberg Elegies is divided into three parts: The Reading Self, The Electronic Millennium, and Critical Mass: Three Meditations. I was surprised that the first part was mainly autobiographical narrating Birkerts' history of interaction with the book. This part was enjoyable to read and made me think about my own interaction with books. The reader can tell that books have shaped the author for the good. My favorite essay in this part was "The Paper Chase: An Autobiographical Fragment." In this essay, Birkerts describe his years of working in book stores and his journey to become a writer. "The Shadow Life of the Reader" is also good because it shows how books affect us even when we are not reading them.

The second part, "The Electronic Medium," analyzes changes that has been brought about because of the electronic age. Two other essays that I thought were quite good were "The Western Gulf" which is a review of Lionel Trilling's Liberal Imagination  and Alvin Kernan's Death of Literature. Birkerts describes Kernan as a "defeated humanist, gracious in defeat, telling us what has happened" (183). It reminded me of that library conference that basically buried the book. Birkerts thinks we are living between The Western Gulf and The Death of The Book. Birkerts is not completely pessimistic. He actually believes reading and the book will continue.

Some parts of The Gutenberg Elegies might sound anachronistic, but the core of the book addresses real concerns. There are both good and bad in the benefits we gain from technology. It is important to listen to the critiques of technology so that we can live more wisely. I thought of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury while reading this book. The people in this book stopped reading before the firemen began destroying books. Will there still be readers in the future?

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