March 23, 2019

Reading In a Digital World

““I read books to read myself,” Sven Birkerts wrote in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts’s book, which turns twenty-five this year, is composed of fifteen essays on reading, the self, the convergence of the two, and the ways both are threatened by the encroachment of modern technology. As the culture around him underwent the sea change of the internet’s arrival, Birkerts feared that qualities long safeguarded and elevated by print were in danger of erosion: among them privacy, the valuation of individual consciousness, and an awareness of history—not merely the facts of it, but a sense of its continuity, of our place among the centuries and cosmos. “Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience,” he wrote. “It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.”

Writing in 1994, Birkerts worried that distractedness and surficiality would win out. The “duration state” we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives, both fictional and lived. The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness. For Birkerts, as for many a reader, the thought of such a loss devastates. So while he could imagine this bleak near-future, he (mostly) resisted the masochistic urge to envision it too concretely, focusing instead on the present, in which—for a little while longer, at least—he reads, and he writes. His collection, despite its title, resembles less an elegy for literature than an attempt to stave off its death: by writing eloquently about his own reading life and electronic resistance, Birkerts reminds us that such a life is worthwhile, desirable, and, most importantly, still possible. In the face of what we stand to lose, he privileges what we might yet gain.

A quarter of a century later, did he—did we—manage to salvage the wreck? Or have Birkerts’s worst fears come to pass? It’s hard to tell from the numbers. More independent bookstores are opening than closing, and sales of print books are up—but authors’ earnings are down. Fewer Americans read for pleasure than they once did. A major house’s editor-driven imprint was shuttered recently, while the serialized storytelling app Wattpad announced its intention to publish books chosen by algorithms, foregoing the need for editors altogether. Some of the changes Birkerts saw on the horizon—the invention of e-books, for one, and the possibilities of hypertext—have turned out to be less consequential than anticipated, but others have proven dire; the easy, addictive distractions of the screen swallow our hours whole.”

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