I finished reading The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts the other day. I thought there were only two sections of the book but there turned out to be three. The final section, “Critical Mass: Three Meditations” proved quite interesting.
Birkerts does an analysis of Lionel Trilling’s book from the 50s, The Liberal Imagination and uses it to prove, or attempt to prove, that Trilling is a) a genius and b) there was a literary golden age that was already coming to an end in the 50s but could have been avoided if we had only listened to Trilling. If Trilling saw things on the verge on decline, Birkerts believes we have fallen very far over that cliff. Somehow we have managed to break our fall in a bramble bush on a narrow ledge from which Birkerts peers out into the great abyss and says that he can see a time when “the idea of the literary intellectual threatens to become altogether implausible.” Infuriatingly and tellingly, Birkerts laments the end of not only literary culture but of proper criticism. I may have read him wrong, but it seems to me his idea of the role of the critic is to tell people what to think about literature and nobody is listening anymore, but no one is talking either:
The great critics have mostly died; the former venues have either shrunk, disappeared, or become commercial. In the cultural spot where Trilling and others stood and jousted, there is a great and distressing silence. The fathers and mothers are no longer there to tell us what to think. Listening to the pundits on TV or reading them in the editorial pages is not the same. Whether criticism died of one of the novel’s terminal illnesses is uncertain.
He goes on to say that what likely happened was that criticism “failed to address the crisis of reading–the overthrow of the authority of the book and writer–and died of irrelevance.” Perhaps in the hallowed halls of academe, readers know about Roland Barthes’ death of the author, but I’d hazard to say for the average reader, both intellectual and pop cultural, the author still has authority. And even if the average reader thinks the author dead, I’m not quite clear on how that killed literature and as a result, criticism. Maybe what readers want is a different kind of criticism, not someone telling them what to think of a book, but instead someone who can offer a close reading, context, background, suggestions for what the author might be up to without the presumption of knowing. That’s the kind of criticism I like anyway.
Birkerts also does an analysis of Alvin Kernan’s Death of Literature which sounds like it actually might be an interesting book to read. Kernan postualtes, and Birkerts agrees, that romanticism has been squashed by the utilitarian. The power and force of literature is diminished because people feel books lack relevance. There is also the problem of living in a busy, overstimulating world and being unable to slow down:
Who among us can generate regularly the stillness and concentration and will to read Henry James, or Joseph Conrad, or James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf as they were meant to be read? And which one of us, when able to do so, does not feel immured in a privacy that has nothing to do with the real business of the world?
I want to say, Sven, dude, stop projecting, just because you seem to be having problems with your own reading doesn’t mean the rest of us are. I have read and and will continue to read those writers. Nor do I feel like they have nothing to do with the real world. They have everything to do with the real world and how I see it and understand it.
One of the things that worries Birkerts most about our tendency to unquestioningly accept technology is all the constant connectedness. He fears for the end of the individual, solitary and thinking with book in hand. He worries we will become hive-like in everything we do which made me think of the Borg on Star Trek Next Generation. Birkerts doesn’t suggest anything as extreme as the Borg, but he fears, perhaps, that we will become not so much like bees or termites, but more like lemmings; as one goes so go the rest.
All in all, The Gutenberg Elegies is a thoughtful, well written book. I don’t agree with everything he says but I appreciate that he asks the questions not only about books and technology but also about humans and technology. Our relationship to technology is something more and more people are beginning to question so I give Birkerts credit for being ahead of the times (the book was published in 1994). On NPR’s Future Tense Jon Gordon has talked to the authors of a couple of new books, Andrew Keen about The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, and Steve Talbott about Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines. But then there is the optimistic view of technology as expressed in Rachel Donadio’s NY Times Book Review essay, Get With the Program, which I am sure if Birkerts read it he’d say it was an example of everything that was wrong with literature. A lot of people frame the issue as “book wars” but clearly it is much bigger than that. Books are only a small part of the cultural changes that technology is bringing about. So it’s really “tech wars” but I don’t like that framing either because it means winners and losers and I honestly think there is a balance that can be found. Whether or not we can attain that balance remains to be seen.