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  • The Cult of Print
  • Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.

It is tempting to begin by commenting on the fact that this review of the work of an author who is at best wary of, and often openly hostile to, the various new writing technologies, is appearing in the pages (so to speak) of a journal that is published and circulated solely through the electronic media of the Internet. But since this is also a point we might do better to simply bracket at the outset, let me begin instead by saying that I agree with Jahan Ramazani’s recent paraphrase of Countee Cullen: we need elegies now more than ever (ix). If the elegy, as Ramazani writes, is itself an act of struggle against the dominant culture’s reflexive denial of grief, then surely the elegiac sensibility must contain the potential for evoking badly needed forms of recognition in an era when the nightly news is brought to us by Disney (15–16).

The merger of the American Broadcasting Company and the entertainment ensemble which this past summer brought us Pocahontas is, in fact, just the sort of phenomenon that gives rise to Sven Birkerts’s project of presiding over the occasion of Gutenberg’s passing. In this collection of essays and meditations, however, his critique of our contemporary electronic environment belongs more properly to the tradition of the jeremiad than the elegy. Birkerts, a critic, reviewer, and self-confessed “un-regenerate reader,” has lately been appearing in such places as Harper’s Magazine to speak against what he describes as the onset of “critical mass” with regard to our media technologies. The components of this critical mass include, first and foremost, the Internet and other on-line services, as well as hypertext systems, CD-ROMs and most other forms of multimedia, PCs in general and word processors in particular, fax machines, pagers, cellula rphones, and voicemail — in short, the whole riot of circuitry that has, over the course of the last decade or so, migrated from the showcases of consumer electronics fairs to our homes, offices, and classrooms.

It is no exaggeration to say that for Birkerts, who holds that “language and not technology is the true evolutionary miracle,” this migration is anathema to the printed word as he knows it, and apocalyptic in terms of its broader cultural effects:

As the world hurtles on . . . the old act of slowly reading a serious book becomes an elegiac exercise. As we ponder that act, profound questions must arise about our avowedly humanistic values, about spiritual versus material concerns, and about subjectivity itself. . . . I have not yet given up on the idea that the experience of literature offers a kind of wisdom that cannot be discovered elsewhere; that there is profundity in the verbal encounter itself, never mind what profundities the author has to offer; and that for a host of reasons the bound book is the ideal vehicle for the written word.


To understand Birkerts’s perspective here, we must turn to the model of reading he develops in the early essays of The Gutenberg Elegies. But first, I should note that the above passage allows us to glimpse at the outset a disturbing tendency in Birkerts’s thought: here and elsewhere, “The Book” collapses far too readily into “Serious Literature,” a category which in turn collapses too often into a familiar canon of novels, a canon which, whatever its merits or demerits, forms only one constellation in the Gutenberg galaxy.

Reading, for Birkerts, is an insular activity. It allows him to transcend the quotidian order of things, and experience what he calls alternately “real time,” “deep time,” or: “Duration time, within which events resonate and mean. When I am at the finest pitch of reading, I feel as if the whole of my life — past as well as unknown future — were somehow available to me. Not in terms of any high-definition particulars . . . but as an object of contemplation” (84). One might wish to question whether this particular experience of time is truly unique to reading and print culture; Victor Turner and...

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