If you had surveyed the technological world of 1994—a time of chirping pagers, beeping fax machines, and “Be kind, please rewind” that videotape from Blockbuster—would you have perceived an imminent threat to the practice of reading and the very concept of culture?
Sven Birkerts did.
That year Birkerts wrote, “Chip and screen have at one and the same time inundated us with information . . . and modified our habits. They have put single-track concentration, the discipline of reading, under great pressure. . . . Who has the time or will to read books the way people used to?”
That dire assessment appeared in Birkerts’s passionate and prescient book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. His was a lonely voice at the time, but 25 years later, the book’s message seems remarkably in step with that of contemporary scholars looking at the effects of digital communications on reading habits.
That prescience is a tribute to Birkerts’s understanding of and love for reading, and makes Elegies well worth pondering even now.
Birkerts—an essayist, critic, editor, writing instructor, and author of numerous books—pursues two ends in The Gutenberg Elegies: to warn that Western culture’s willing adoption of electronic media poses a massive threat to “deep reading” and its positive effects, and to celebrate the priceless worth of such reading. Notwithstanding the book’s ominous subtitle, the warning mostly comes after the celebration. Still, respecting the book’s prophetic reputation, let’s first consider the negative.
Fate of Reading
Birkerts is not about condemning new technologies simply for their novelty. In fact, in an afterword to the 2006 edition, he admits with regard to email, “Here I am, more than a decade later, chagrined but also, yes, moderately immersed. I have acclimated to a degree, and there are even aspects of the whole process I enjoy.” His concern, rather, stems from his perception of a trend holding dire portents for reading itself—and therefore for culture. “I believe that . . . the societal shift from print-based to electronic communications is as consequential for culture as was the shift instigated by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type,” he writes.
What can feel like ‘staying on top of things’ is really nothing but distraction from the best of things.
What is the gist of this epochal shift? In short, Birkerts warns (as have others) that the sheer deluge of our electronic communication is sweeping us away from focus and reflection toward skimming and summarizing—from depth to breadth—as we strive in vain to keep up with the flow of information. “I see a deep transformation in the nature of reading, a shift from focused, sequential, text-centered engagement to . . . the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling.”
This shift, in turn, is robbing us of “a sense of the deep and natural connectedness of things.” And that sense of connectedness, Birkerts argues persuasively, is the source of wisdom, which he defines as “a seeing through facts, a penetration to the underlying laws and patterns.” He writes:
We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] 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. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information.
Birkerts puts his point succinctly near the end of the book: “My core fear is that we are, as a culture, as a species . . . giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture.”
As a people who have been specially charged to “Get wisdom; get insight” (Prov. 4:5), Christians should hear this warning with deep concern. We need to consider that our finite minds may be fundamentally incapable of managing myriad “bits,” and that our time might be better spent seeking the one in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17)—the very source of the “connectedness of things.”
The stakes, then, are astronomically high. But how can we judge whether this would-be prophet speaks truth or vain babblings? Should we listen or laugh? Can we trust the seer’s eye? In The Gutenberg Elegies, I found two reasons to give credence to Birkerts’s perspective.
First, Birkerts bases his predictions about the effects of electronic media on trends that gathered momentum long before the first digital communications. In other words, he sees the advent of electronic media on a continuum.
Birkerts cites “The First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” a 1986 essay in which Robert Darnton argues that prior to 1750, people read intensively, returning again and again to the few texts they could lay their hands on. But as printed materials proliferated, particularly newspapers and periodicals, people began to read more extensively, that is, more broadly. This “centrifugal tendency,” Birkerts notes, “has escalated right into our present,” driven partly by the growth of higher education but also by “the astronomical increase in the quantity of available print.”
Translating Darnton’s intensive and extensive into his own terms, Birkerts argues that the “trajectory” of reading has witnessed the “gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal—the sacrifice of depth to lateral range.” The cause is no mystery: “In our culture, access is not a problem, but proliferation is.”
Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.
If nothing else, we have to acknowledge that Birkerts perceived that electronic media would bring hyperproliferation. No longer would a newspaper reader be limited to his local paper and a few others at the newsstand—thousands would become accessible. No longer would a fiction reader have to choose her next read from the extensive but finite collections at her local library or neighborhood bookstore—nearly any title would be easy to order, in print or electronic form.
Seeing these shifts as through a glass darkly, Birkerts can perhaps be forgiven for resorting to something akin to apocalyptic language, describing the advent of electronic media as “a paradigm shift, a plummet down the rabbit hole” and an “epoch-making transition.” Still, I find his perspective persuasive since it’s informed by historical reflection.
Likewise, a bit of Christian historical perspective can be helpful at this point. It’s convicting to consider the depth of the wisdom of our ancestors in the faith despite the lack of breadth in their libraries. To cite just two examples, John Calvin’s collection “has been estimated at 300 to 350 volumes,” according to church historian Scott Manestch. And Jonathan Edwards, who lived and ministered about two centuries after Calvin, reportedly had somewhere around 800 books. Of course, both men likely borrowed many other volumes from various sources, but it’s hard not to conclude that they made better use of their small libraries than we do with our nearly unlimited access to information.
Access, then, may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.
Why Reading Matters
I agree with Birkerts for a second, perhaps more powerful reason. This reason brings us back to his celebration of reading, which fills roughly the first half of The Gutenberg Elegies.
Birkerts rattles off a laundry list of the traditional benefits of reading—“[It] broadens, quickens verbal skills, fosters attentiveness and imagination, and develops the sense of contextual relativism that makes us more empathetic, more inquisitive beings”—then just as quickly asserts that reading matters for even deeper reasons. Here his language takes a mystical turn:
There is a metaphysics of reading that has to do with a good deal more than any simple broadening of the mind. Rather, it involves a change of state and inner orientation, and if we contemplate the reading process in this light we can hardly get away from introducing the word soul (or something very like it) into the conversation.
Birkerts later confesses that his use of the word soul is “secular.” He explains, “I mean it to stand for inwardness, for that awareness we carry of ourselves as mysterious creatures at large in the universe. The soul is that part of us that smelts meaning and tries to derive a sense of purpose from experience.”
It never ceases to fascinate and delight me that God gave us his thoughts in a book, a medium that requires us to read.
Reading, then, has a unique power to shape us, especially our perspective on the world: “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.” This happens because reading connects us to others on a deeply personal level:
We might reach a more inclusive understanding of reading (and writing) if we think in terms of a continuum. At one end, the writer—the flesh-and-blood individual; at the other, the flesh-and-blood reader. In the center, the words, the turning pages, the decoding intelligence. Writing is the monumentally complex operation whereby experience, insight, and imagination are distilled into language; reading is the equally complex operation that disperses these distilled elements into another person’s life. The act only begins with the active deciphering of the symbols.
So the connection provided by reading is, in Birkerts’s conception, a way to unlock who we are and are becoming: “I read books to read myself. . . . With each book completed I feel that I have augmented myself, gained in some understanding or wisdom, however slight. . . . The writers we read furnish us with expectations—they teach us how we like to see and feel and hear and think about things.” Thus, reading offers “a chance to subject the anarchic subjectivity to another’s disciplined imagination, a chance to be taken in unsuspected directions under the guidance of some singular sensibility.”
In these meditations, Birkerts seems to be tracking with C. S. Lewis, who wrote in the epilogue of his 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism, “Literature . . . admits us to experiences other than our own. . . . Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.”
Surely Birkerts’s point is most apt for Christians. If his conception of reading as a connection to the minds of others by which we learn and grow is true (and it certainly seems obvious), what treasures await us as we read the book penned by the Author himself? If we stand to benefit and improve as human beings by reading the thoughts of other people, how much greater must be the good that can come to us as we read the thoughts of God? How helpful to be subjected to his “disciplined imagination,” to receive the guidance of his “singular sensibility”?
Value for Believers
I appreciated Birkerts’s book both for his motivation in writing it and also for the relevance of his central point to the Christian life.
First, Birkerts writes because he loves reading. Clearly, he treasures good books and the experience of absorbing them. Observing his passion as he reflects on how reading affects him is a joy in itself. But more than that, it’s instructive to note how his passion stands behind his protectiveness. It’s precisely because he loves reading so much that he writes so fiercely about the threat he perceives from electronic communication. Thus, Elegies reminds me to find and defend the things that matter most, a good lesson for me as a follower of Christ and recipient of the pearl of great price, which I too often take for granted.
Secondarily, however, Birkerts exposes the subtle dangers of information proliferation, helping me see that what can feel like “staying on top of things” is really nothing but distraction from the best of things. Thus, he challenges me to focus on what is most good, true, and beautiful—to spend my limited reading time on, first, the Word of God; and second, time-tested books that help me understand the Word and its Author. John Wesley’s passionate prayer “Let me be a man of one book” resonates more deeply with me after reading Birkerts.
It never ceases to fascinate and delight me that God gave us his thoughts in a book, a medium that requires us to read. Of course, it’s not an easy book, one that readily translates into snippets and “bits”; rather, it asks and rewards deep reading. To put it in Birkert’s terms, it demands that we strive after a “centripetal tendency”—choosing depth over breadth, intensive reading rather than extensive reading—that we might be wise rather than merely informed.