Tolstoy's Dictaphone

Bruce Barcott reviews the collection of essays "Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse", edited by Sven Birkerts

By Bruce Barcott
Published September 3, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

When "The Gutenberg Elegies" was published two years ago, at the height of Internet-mania, it established Sven Birkerts, already one of America's leading literary critics, as an eloquent critic of the emerging technoculture. With "Tolstoy's Dictaphone," a collection of essays addressing the role of high technology in the literary arts, Birkerts attempts to continue and broaden the conversation initiated by "The Gutenberg Elegies." Unfortunately, he is undone by his own contributors.

There are some excellent pieces here. Lynne Sharon Schwartz's "Only Connect," a delightful consideration of our relationship with telephones, is the pride of this collection and the best essay I've read (twice!) this year. Daniel Mark Epstein turns in a brief but evocative portrait of Baltimore's Peabody Library, a musty athenaeum where clerks "rise from the dust" when called. But many of the pieces are unfocused or dissolve in the acid of academic jargon. Jonathan Franzen's "Scavenging" reads like notes for an upcoming New Yorker essay. Carole Maso, in an essay consisting of one- and two-line sentences and aphorisms, wraps herself in the rags of scorned genius and becomes tiresome by the third page. "You like to say I am reckless," she writes. "You like to say I lack discipline. You say my words lack structure. I've heard it a hundred times from you. But nothing could be farther from the truth." Let's make that a hundred and one: Her piece lacks structure and discipline.

The book holds insights worth fighting for. Mark Slouka brilliantly defines the current flood of electronically generated verbal and visual signals as "the culture of distraction" and laments that the growing segmentation of electronic communities means the loss of "the daily grinding of differences so necessary not only to the democratic process but to individual growth." But even this contribution makes you fight. "From Massachusetts Bay to the Michigan Militia," Slouka writes, "the actual, physical landscape, for example, has functioned as the all-purpose tenor for the national metaphor of the moment..." I'm still trying to figure that one out.

Bruce Barcott

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