Thursday, March 12, 2009

Battles with Birkerts

People who read this blog - or, for that matter,  read about it in other publications - will know that digital doubters like Sven Birkerts, Nick Carr, Lee Siegel and others with misgivings large or small about where IT is taking us, are treated respectfully here.  Even Michael Gorman.

When Birkert's Gutenberg Elegies came out in 1994 (!), it stood out in contrast to the glib Californian internet evangelism of the day as a beautifully written and serious consideration of issues that are still important today; in particular, the intense privacy of the reading experience, and the threat to that kind of privacy that connectedness poses. But hey, the world moves along, and at some point, the steady drone of an axe grinding becomes tedious.  I'm afraid Birkerts has reached that point now, with his recent piece in the Atlantic about his resistance to the Kindle. I will still read him gladly on literature, but suffer him less gladly on technology. In Resisting the Kindle he seems to argue that reading a book on a screen - never mind which book - somehow diminishes the reading experience - and the culture of writing and reading - by decontextualizing it. Huh?  He explains:

But we should not forget that the sum of reader-text encounters creates our cultural landscape. So if it happens that in a few decades—maybe less—we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button, and libraries survive as information centers rather than as repositories of printed books, we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators.

To me this sounds a bit contrived - nicely put perhaps, but you can't help notice the speaker is standing in a a corner with wet paint all around. In In Defense of the Kindle, rare books librarian Matthew Battles responds. Like Birkerts, Battles is a serious, scholarly sort with a reverence for books and learning (and the author of Library: an Unquiet History [2003]) but he argues - very persuasively, I think - that the digitized ease of access that an apparatus like the Kindle provides, will promote the culture of letters rather than undermine it. In the following passage Battles does Birkerts a disservice, however:

When someone at a party he [Birkerts] attends responds to a question about Wallace Stevens by calling a Stevens poem up on his BlackBerry, he frets that we may be "gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens as the flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is merely the sum total of his facts."

This incident took place at  a poetry reading, not a party.


  1. Poetry readings should be parties!

  2. "Californian"? I can assure you that (a) most Californians--even here in Silicon Valley--are not glib Internet evangelists and (b) there are loads of glib Internet evangelists outside of California. Not sure why you felt the need to include that word...

  3. I associate some of the more breathless internet evangelism of the 80s and 90s not only with Silicon Valley but also with the culture that grew out of the Well. Perhaps that's inaccurate - but even if it's not it in no way contradicts your incontestable assertions (a)and(b). I mean "Glib internet evangelism" to be a tiny tiny subset of "Californian," but still bigger (I think) than of "Idahoan" or "Arkansan." Mostly though, "Californian" is a beautiful word!

  4. I am not Internet evangelist, but I found Birkerts' arguments really weak. Even his best points seemed undercut by his shrill tone and lack of evidence or explanation.

    Birkerts’ reference to Gutenberg in the title of his book is fitting. As I read his article, I couldn’t help but thinking of a story Clay Shirky tells in his book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky writes about the scribes - an elite group of literate monks - whose job it was, for many centuries, to hand-copy books. That is, until the 1400’s when Gutenberg came along. “Suddenly,” writes Josh Benton, describing the scene, “scribes were no longer a necessary link between knowledge and learner.” And as the printing press spread across Europe, the scribes sounded remarkably like Birkerts, warning of all that we will lose if we allow technology to reshape reading.

    My expanded thoughts are here: