The Gutenberg Elegies

Sven Birkerts, in his 1994 book, The Gutenberg Elegies, explores the issue of reading in an electronic age. This quote from his book mirrors my point about the dichotomy of deep reading and power browsing:

The more complex and sophisticated our systems of lateral access, the more we sacrifice in the way of depth.

Birkerts offers an explanation for why the loss of “depth” is important. The sense of depth is equated with wisdom, “the knowing not of facts but of truths about human nature and the processes of life.”

The explosion of data … has all but destroyed the premise of understandability. Inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture.

Wisdom can only survive as a cultural ideal where there is a possibility of vertical consciousness…. Wisdom is a seeing through facts, a penetration to the underlying laws and patterns.

This quote from his book caught my attention because of its relationship to the question of education and literacy:

I am well aware of the traditional wisdom about reading and it importance…. That books are good for you; that reading broadens, quickens verbal skills, fosters attentiveness and imagination, and develops the sense of contextual relativism that makes us more empathic, more inquisitive beings; and that rewards increase with the worthiness of the texts themselves…. Important as these generalizations are, they do not begin to get at the real heart of reading, or to answer the question of why it matters…. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or of one’s orientation toward it. The distinction must be recognized, for when we read we not only transplant ourselves to the place of the text, but we modify our natural angle of regard upon all things; we reposition the self in order to see differently.
Reading is a judgement. It brands as insufficient the understandings and priorities that govern ordinary life. Reading, pledged to duration, refuses the idea of time as simple succession. Reading argues for a larger conception of the meaningful, and its implicit injunction (seldom heeded even by readers) is that we change our lives, that we strive to live them in the light of meaning. This is not a message that many people want to hear, for the responsibility it imposes is crushingly great.

As I read his book, I realized I needed to make an important distinction. Birkerts doesn’t condemn reading in alternate media (he extols the virtues of books on tape– at least for some authors). Rather he is concerned about the type of reading that is taking place. The nature of the medium appears to affect how well we can engage in the intellectual exercise that good, deep reading can offer. Reading is more than just skimming facts from powerful electronic information tools– it’s about immersing oneself in the space and time of the past or in the lives of others. The issue is language and narrative as the real information tools that need to be mastered so that we can arrive at a point where we can say we have a good understanding of the nature of our reality.

gutenberg The Gutenberg Elegies, by Sven Birkerts

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