Cassandra complex

Sven Birkerts says computers are destroying literature. He couldn't be more wrong.


Brigitte Frase
March 30, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Sven Birkerts stopped by our city last
year to sign his latest book,
"Readings," and to bring his Save the
Book crusade to the Minneapolis Friends
of the Library. I went to hear him
because I consider myself not just a
friend but a devoted parishioner. I
think of libraries and bookstores as
lay-missionary posts, functioning as the
secular outreach program of the Church
of the Word. Also, I have a personal
stake in his subject because some years
ago I wrote a long review-essay on the
future of the book in the age of the
Internet and one of the sources I
consulted was, naturally, Birkerts'
book-length lament on the same topic,
"The Gutenberg Elegies."

As I listened to Birkerts' familiar
jeremiad, I found myself squirming in
the itchy discomfort I always feel when
I disagree with someone but find myself
tongue-and-mind tied, unable to
articulate what's wrong. He says we are
losing the ability to read deeply. The
speed of the Internet speeds up our
minds. We race through sites, grabbing
snippets of data as we skip and skim
nimbly over oceans of information. The
time is always Now; hypertext
connections sizzle and evaporate.

Advertisement:

It's not just slow and immersive reading
we're losing, Birkerts says. We've
reached a critical juncture in the
transition from print culture to screen
culture. We're metamorphosing from
individual and private people to
fungible, Web-linked brain connectors in
a bright, buzzy, gregarious info-hive.

I empathize with his worries. I share
many of them, short attention spans for
example. And I share Birkerts' love for
close reading, the attentive scrutiny of
chapter arcs, paragraph composition,
sentence structure, punctuation: all the
minutiae that undergird the gorgeous
scenes and portraits readers respond to
in books they love.

But now, Birkerts thinks, this new
technology, chatty and endlessly in the
know, is changing not only our reading
and thinking habits, but our very
selves. Human beings are so adaptable,
they're sure to get with the digital
program: speedy information scanning,
our brains mimicking computers, all
data, no deep and complicated
conversions to knowledge, and no housing
anymore for a soul. I think he's wrong,
in large part because his idea of print
culture is so shallow -- what I distill
from it is a nostalgic image of a
reader, arms full of fresh books from
the library, ambling through the
tree-lined streets of a small town to
the comfy chair in a quiet room. This
has never been reality, as Birkerts
knows, but even as an ideal or a
standard for a civilized life it's too
narrow to be inspiring.

I'll begin by proving his point about
adaptability. This most human of
qualities is now, in Birkerts' eyes, no
longer a positive trait. In adapting to
new reading and writing technologies, he
tells us we are leaving our souls
behind.

In cultural terms, I've gone from zero
to 60 mph in less than 50 years. My
childhood, in post-war Munich and then
in a farming village near the Czech
border, lacked the following: indoor
toilets, newspapers, magazines, radio,
bookstores, libraries and people who
minded their absence. I received two
books a year, Christmas and birthday.

Cut to the U.S after my family
immigrated. One of the first singers I
heard on our new radio was Elvis. I was
immediately smitten. Same reaction a few
years later to the Beatles. I traded the
"Niebelungenlied" and the Brothers Grimm
for Superman, Spiderman and Nancy Drew.
We got a TV. In high school, I wrote
papers in long hand, until my parents
bought me an Olympia manual typewriter
in my senior year. In the '70s I started
using an electric machine; that was
followed by an electronic typewriter
with a one-line screen where I could
make corrections before committing the
words to the paper in the carriage. I
entered the computer age in 1990, and
toward the end of the century, I
embraced the Netscape browser,
AltaVista's search engine and an e-mail
address. I'm a filament on the Web,
linked intricately to all the other
strands, all of us part of a humming,
roaming, free-associative consciousness.

Advertisement:

There are literary Internet cheerleaders
-- Bart Kosko, Robert Coover and George
Landow spring to mind -- who
enthusiastically endorse this
progressive interactivity of minds and
chips. For them, and all the young
techies out there, the fully uplinked
brain is a teleology devoutly to be
welcomed.

Birkerts shudders. Will the solitary,
meditative individual die out? Will the
fully wired, electrified world have any
use for the reader, the dreamer, the
critic, the scholar, the poet, each
grappling with complex ideas, emotions
and questions in a quiet room alone? Or
will the last surviving reader and
writer someday close their books
forever, shut off the reading lamps and
fire up the screen?

I think the idea that we have to choose
between the screen and the page is a
false dilemma. They will co-habit, I
suggest, with reading lamp and screen
casting their different glows. All
right, I'm anticipating Birkerts'
rejoinder. We're both old enough to
remember slower days, fewer media, the
feel of good smooth paper slipping
between our fingers. Our souls
are not in danger because we've been
raised by books. Our kids, however,
connected since kindergarten, are closer
to that fantasy of being uplinked, (or,
if you prefer, that nightmare of being
brainwashed and reprogrammed.) If
Birkerts is right, they'll be going too
fast to actually read anything.

History, however, does not bear out his
argument. I agree with Birkerts that our
consciousness is undergoing a shift, but
it is not unprecedented, as he
maintains. In his essay "The Millennial
Warp" he offers as evidence the
testimony of "older people" who tell him
that things felt different in the past.
"Although changes came steadily in the
old days too (new inventions, changes in
the workplace) and sometimes with
unexpected force (the Depression, the
war), the line of continuity was never
ruptured." According to Birkerts, before
the Internet age began, we had always
retained a connection to the past and
used it to relate new information to old
in order to arrive at some meaningful
knowledge.

Advertisement:

Birkerts, the pessimistic humanist, is
as wrong to think that we are being
utterly transformed by technology as the
optimistic net-heads like Kosko are to
think that we will be made into a new
kind of creature. The truth is that
history accommodates ruptures here and
there while also just, well, continuing.
Ways of doing and thinking rearrange
themselves; at every moment or epoch the
very old and the very new co-exist.
Maybe, to use Stanley Fish's term for
how humans manage all manner of
inconsistencies and paradoxes, history
works by "inspired ad-hoccery." In other
words, the Internet will not replace the
printed book, just as the alphabet did
not drive out the image, nor the printed
book destroy religion.

The fear of radical supersession that
Birkerts speaks for today has an ancient
history. According to Plato, when Hermes
showed pharaoh his new invention,
writing, pharaoh worried that this
technology would destroy the individual
memory. Geoffrey Nunberg, in his
introduction to the 1996 anthology "The
Future of the Book," sensibly reminds us
that the past is full of "an unbroken
stream of proclamations that man is
living in an epochal moment." In that
context, Birkerts is just the latest in
a traditional line of prophets of the
exceptional present, ceaselessly
proclaiming "never before" or "never
again."

Despite Birkerts' warnings that
hypertext, speed and instantaneousness
are destroying resonance, depth and
contour, I think the human mind, for all
its nimble adaptivity, cannot do without
context. True, sometimes we just want a
bit of information, but more often we
want the stream of information to
cohere. Computers can arrange and
correlate huge amounts of data, make any
number of info-assemblages in response
to a curious search. But only the mind
of the seeker will be able to breathe a
life of meaning into them. Only someone
who wants to make sense of things would
be asking in the first place.

Advertisement:

In his 1999 book, "Faster: The
Acceleration of Just About Everything,"
James Gleick offers Terry Gilliam's 1985 movie
"Brazil" as a likelier example of what
the future will look like. Gilliam
"created a glittery, sinister future
filled with ancient technology --
pneumatic tubes, teletype machines, desk
spikes. The effect was a dark hodgepodge
of the antique and the futuristic --
perfect, because when the future does
come creeping in, this is how it looks.
It is not shiny and gleaming, neatly
assembled in clean shrink-wrap. It comes
all mixed up like a junkyard, the old
and the new jumbled together."

Reading "Faster", it occurred to me that
the major historical and conceptual
rupture Birkerts describes isn't the
current communications revolution. It
happened in our grandparents' childhood,
at the end of the 19th century when
wristwatches became available. That's
when our ideas of time and speed changed
radically. Accurate, standardized time
measurement led to railroad schedules,
assembly lines, efficiency experts and
global synchronization, to name a few
items on a list that could go on for
pages.

The wristwatch, which gave constant
access to the time on a individual
basis, also made it necessary to do
something about it. We spend time, waste
it, save it, manage it, have come to
believe that if we don't use it, we lose
it. Time is now a commodity; if we
invest it well we'll get big returns. So
both Birkerts and I and everyone who
still sits down with a book are also
watch-wearing members of a society
racing against the clock. The personal
computer just continues that tradition.

Advertisement:

Birkerts also bemoans the loss of a core
individual identity, the kind of
identity that deep reading is founded
upon, in the expanding electronic hive.
I question his assumption that we ever
really had such a thing, even in the
good old days. Malleability is part of
our very nature as human beings, and a
self is not a unity but a mixture; each
is many. One can be a loving wife and a
neglectful mother, a mob hit man who's
Catholic and pro-life. One can believe
in God and the explanations of physics.
If you're a Freudian, you're at the very
least a trinity of id, ego and superego.
I think the notion of an authentic
single self, expressed in such
clichis as "being yourself" and
"finding out who you really are" are
modern myths. If we're finicky about
orderliness, we can try to integrate all
our personalities, incompatible ideas,
rhetorical styles; or we can accept the
ad-hoccery of our mental and emotional
makeup and learn to live with human
muttness.

As I visit online journals and
magazines, and the informal discussion
groups formed around specific interests,
it seems to me that, contrary to
Birkerts' denunciations of the medium's
senseless babble, the Web is reviving
the art of intelligent conversation.
Like intellectual Paris in the
Enlightenment, or New York in the
Partisan Review's heyday, the virtual
city is fizzing with bright talk. It is
like visiting Madame de Stael's salon to
discuss German philosophy, and then
finishing the evening at a Greenwich
Village party with the likes of Mary McCarthy and Edmund
Wilson. If the people who love books
today often feel isolated in a world
smitten with mass media, then how can a
medium that brings them together to
share and foster that love possibly be
inimical to literature?

Passionate readers often make for
passionate writers, and vice versa.
E-mail has evolved, for many of us,
beyond business notes or forwarded
jokes, to genuine letters. I write and
receive a great many more of them now
than I did 10 years ago. (But here
again, the new hasn't muscled out the
old; I have no intention of giving up my
fountain pen and good stationery.)
Casual pen pals turn into friends, and
old friends who live in far-flung
regions are still close.

Can the culture of the book really be
dying as Birkerts insists? Perhaps in
some cases it is, and perhaps that's not
always a bad thing. Certain kinds of
books, like travel and restaurant
guides, almanacs, perhaps dictionaries,
encyclopedias and other reference works
-- all the categories that need constant
updating -- might well migrate into
cyberlibraries. The book as
artifact will probably have a
diminished role. There will be
beautiful, hard-bound editions of
certain genres like art books and
literary classics. The coffee-table book
will certainly continue to be produced.

Advertisement:

For everything else, I predict, or at
least fervently hope, that we will be
downloading texts into e-books. Once you
let go of an atavistic attachment to
paper for its own sake, it makes a lot
of sense. College students will be
grateful not to have to buy all those
textbooks, as will devotees of mysteries
and romance novels. True, the current
e-book models are not friendly to
readers like Birkerts and me who like to
turn pages. But MIT scientists are close
to realizing an electronic book
"comprised of hundreds of electronically
addressable display pages printed on
real paper substrates. Such pages may be
typeset in situ, thus giving such a book
the capability to be any book." ["The
Last Book," IBM Systems Journal] The
spine might have a small display and
several buttons that would call up a
card catalog. The last book, or
"reversible hardcopy medium" as it's
called in technical parlance, will
eventually be the world's greatest text
storehouse, a single-volume library that
could easily accommodate the holdings of
the Library of Congress and more.

What Birkerts doesn't address is how,
increasingly, the paper-and-ink
publishing industry, by virtue of its
economic structure, is far from
literature's best friend. If big changes
are coming, they may not be for the
worse. As Steven Levy gleefully
speculates in the Jan. 1 Newsweek, "When
publishers no longer have to focus on
moving pulped forests to distributors,
the business model will go bananas."
When books are published and ordered or
rented online, there won't be all those
remaindered tree products to worry
about, and publishers could well become
more willing to gamble on literary works
with smaller audiences.

When Birkerts talks about the
deep-reading experience, that immersion
that feels timeless yet somehow linked
to an accessible past, I know what he
means. But I also think he's
romanticizing and he's making a fetish
of language by identifying it with a
certain printed form. The word is not
the book; why should it die if that
particular house is remade?

And consider this thought-provoking
analogy in an essay called "The Talmud
and the Internet" by Jonathan Rosen (you
can find it in "The Art of the Essay
1999" edited by Phillip Lopate). "I have
often thought, contemplating a page of
the Talmud, that it bears a certain
resemblance to a home page on the
Internet, where nothing is whole in
itself but where icons and text boxes
are doorways through which visitors pass
into an infinity of cross-referenced
texts and conversations." A single page
of text in this most revered and
literary of documents is already a
historical, multilayered compendium and
a continuing discussion. There are
stories, bits of history, anthropology,
legal disputes, biblical interpretation,
plus the commentaries, corrections,
asides, marginalia, reinterpretations of
generations of scholars and rabbis.

Advertisement:

The e-book will allow us the best of the
old and new ways of reading. We can read
"Huckleberry Finn" or "The Duino
Elegies" from beginning to end and then
close the book, experiencing it as a
whole in itself, a finite world in which
we have dwelled for a while. But why not
then open the windows and doors to other
texts and voices? Perhaps it's time for
romantic readers to give up the illusion
of closure and finitude. After all, only
the printed book-object is a finite
text; every writing is part of a
conversation with other writings, past
and present. The "last book" will widen
the contextual space in which reading
takes place, and beautifully complicate
its resonances. That's a complex
richness devoutly to be welcomed by
friends of the book.


Brigitte Frase

Brigitte Frase is critic at large for the Hungry Mind Review and an editor at Milkweed Editions. She is working on a family history-memoir about immigration and culture clash.

MORE FROM Brigitte Frase

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Fiction




Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •