Review: Sven Birkerts’ “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age”

by writereaderly

sven birkerts the gutenberg elegiesThis is a terribly difficult review to write; I am so conflicted by this book. This essay collection was recommended by BE several years ago, and I’ve just coaxed my new library into seeking it out for me. By all rights, I should be enamoured of this curmudgeonly account of the demise of reading and literature due to the influx of digitalia in our world; I myself have espoused those same seething-grumbling views on many an occasion. But I just found this book too ponderous, too self-important. Yes, Birkerts knows books, literature, publishing. Yes, he’s taken good time to evaluate and consider the incursion of metadata into what had been a world governed by type. Yes, I share the basic position of “I love reading, I don’t love computers”. Nary an argument there. But I wanted a more public analysis of the contemporary fate of reading, and less a personal cri de coeur. I write this aware that Birkerts berates the “young” [sic] for the shallow, inattentive reading abilities, their lack of time for complex argument, the shallow pond which serves them as literary history, and therefore aware that my annoyance with this book could exactly represent the modern impatience Birkerts describes. However, the book did make me impatient, and it taught me a great deal about SB’s thinking about reading and very little I couldn’t work out myself about cultural and literary evolution. It is useful, though, that this erudite (if not beautiful) contrarian view has been set out and disseminate, however much it resembles a finger-in-the-dam scenario. Not a book to be taken lightly.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading:
Various days of small, dense samples
Where it went: Home
Best line of the book:
Reminds me of/that: —
Who I’d recommend it to:

Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Returning the Gift edited by Joseph Bruchac; The Pea-Pickers by Eve Langley; When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön