Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Birkerts and the Kindle

Well, Sven Birkerts suspects the Kindle — no surprise there. Interestingly, in the seminar I’m currently teaching we just finished reading Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies, and at the end of that discussion I brought my Kindle to class and passed it around. So this brief essay by Birkerts is for me and my students a timely one.

I have my own concerns about the transition from book to screens — assuming that such a transition is really taking place — but I can't think of anyone who expresses such concerns less clearly than Birkerts. My students and I were continually puzzled while reading The Gutenberg Elegies — we just couldn't figure out exactly what his complaints were. And the same terminal vagueness afflicts this new essay. Consider:

Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer — a skeptic if not a downright resister? Perhaps it is because I see in the turning of literal pages — pages bound in literal books — a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon. I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it—the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.

The electronic book, on the other hand, represents — and furthers — a circuitry of instant access, which giveth (information) as it taketh away (the great clarifying context, the order). This will not be an instant revolution. Paradigm shifts take time. Right now the Kindle still lives within the context of print. But what would happen if, through growing market share and broad generational adoption, the Kindle were to supplant the bound book? For me the significance of this is not whether people end up reading more or less, or even a matter of what they read. At issue is the deep-structure of the activity. My fear is that as Wikipedia is to information, so will the Kindle become to literature and the humanities: a one-stop outlet, a speedy and irresistibly efficient leveler of context.

As far as I can tell, Birkerts is saying here that it doesn't matter how much you read or what you read; all that matters is that you are physically turning the pages of a codex, because that specific action is “a larger value” than what you read and constitutes “the deep-structure of the activity.”

I cannot find any other way of interpreting what Birkerts says here, but that’s just nuts — as well as totally inconsistent with the arguments he makes in The Gutenberg Elegies about the unique value of reading novels. Does he really want to suggest that a person reading a biography of Paris Hilton in an actual book is having a deeper and richer experience than a person reading Henry James on a Kindle?

Later on in the essay he gets rather upset as he recalls a person who used her Blackberry to retrieve the precise words of a line from Wallace Stevens’s poetry. “I pictured us gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens (and every other artist and producer of work) as the historical flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is the merely the sum total of his facts — a writer no longer cohering in historical imagination but fragmented into retrievable bits of information.” So what, then, is an acceptable way to look up a line of poetry by Stevens? Isn't there something to be said for the fact that a small group of people at that moment, while they were still immersed in conversation, were able to share Stevens’s actual words? Doesn't that count for something? Isn't that in some way better than a scene in which one or two of them remember to look up the line later, while the others forget about it altogether?

Birkerts needs to think past his immediate reactions. Even if the reactions are appropriate ones, they aren't useful to anyone else unless they are thought through and clearly articulated. This is the kind of off-the-cuff reaction than gives us book lovers a bad name.


  • Dan Treier said...

    All I've read are your excerpts, but this strikes me as a rather uncharitable reading compared to your usual standards. Nothing he writes suggests he would value the P. Hilton bio over the H. James novel. He seems to be addressing an entire culture of access, understanding, and research - e.g., involving a library - which shapes how we go about a set of practices in relation to any given text. That set of practices would indeed be different re a Kindle in a bookless world, it seems to me. And one example deals with memory - you ask the question, How is one supposed to retrieve a line of poetry? The answer, as opposed to the Blackberry search, lies in memory. But we will not be inclined to memorize the actual lines precisely - as opposed to trying to remember that there's some bit of info somewhere we'd like to retrieve - in a bookless world.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Come on, Dan, give a guy a chance to engage in some heuristic exaggeration, wouldya?

    But as for memory: I don't think Birkerts is imagining that all of those people should have memorized the poem by Stevens that they're thinking of. If he is, he's expecting more from them than he expects from himself (from what he has written elsewhere about his limited interest in poetry). I guess I would ask: If he doesn't want them to look up the line online, what *does* he want them to do?

  • Maureen Ogle said...

    Well, here's my objection to Birkerts (and just about everyone else who has comented on the Kindle, e-book, etc, AND to the google guys who simply don't grasp the FORMAT in which information can be found:

    They're all assuming that "books" are the main mode of cultural transmission.

    Yes, books are important. The "book" is important. But -- there are literally mountains of "information" in the world that cannot be found in books.

    I'm thinking of archival sources used by historians -- letters, diaries, account books -- that are not "published."

    I'm thinking, too, of newspapers, which have been a significant information-transmission mechanism for more than 2 centuries.

    This whole "the book is dying" thing almost seems, I dunno, like a fetish or something.

    Books aren't the only way we access the world around us.

  • John Johansson said...

    What does the infernal spread of CAPTCHA's say about our current place in the history of literature and technology? CAPTCHA’s are those phrases that one must identify in order to appear human enough to post blog comments: the acronym stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." Is Birkert expressing a fear that when history’s letters are fully digitized, every human expression will eventually become indistinguishable from expressions created by machines re-enacting the infinite-number-of-monkeys-in-a-room scenario? That the further we remove ourselves from handwritten notes and incunabula, the less we will be able to tell between a human idea and an idea fabricated from a database crawl of likely human ideas? Was that country song written in a bar in Nashville or a software environment in Bangalore?

    Writing has always been a technology that allows a writer to exist in more than one place and time. And there have always been readers who are captivated by an idea, and readers who are captivated by the concept of the writer who expresses an idea. Now that the interactive context of reading is changing, are there some readers who fear the death of the authorial function in the same way that some people feared MTV would eliminate our need for songwriters?

    I don’t know. But I still like singing hymns from a book that I’m holding rather than from PowerPoint on a screen.

    "All creation is a mine, and every man a miner. The whole earth, and all within it, upon it, and round about it, including himself, in his physical, moral, and intellectual nature, and his susceptibilities, are the infinitely various 'leads' from which, man, from the first, was to dig out his destiny." Abraham Lincoln, in an 1860 campaign speech.

  • I've never read any of Birkert's longer works (only most of the anti-web essays of his that I've found -- ironically, on the web!) and like you point out, Alan, it's never clear what exactly Birkerts is worried about. But could it be that he is projecting what is essentially a private sorrow out into the world? E.g. I frequently feel sad that the things that my parents liked -- the kind of books that they read, the way they dressed, the music they listened to -- are all going to go away. It's not the things themselves but the fact that they remind me of my parents. Perhaps Birkerts has some similar experiences of books and he worries that he has lost these links to his past in this age of electronic reading? But of course, articulating what is essentially a private sorrow is hard, especially if one tries to dress it up as a public concern -- may be that's why Birkerts concerns seem so vague?

    Another (uncharitable) theory might be that Birkerts actually dislikes the easy access that the web provides might actually extend the audience that a piece of writing generally attracts. That's why he doesn't like the fact that someone could just Google Wallace Stevens from his Blackberry and find some lines. In his (rather mean, actually) review of Birkert's work Dale Peck quotes this line: "Serious art can only be enjoyable up to a point [...] If it's too much fun, then it can't be art". Perhaps the web makes books "too much fun", or perhaps too easy to access, and Birkerts doesn't like that? But of course he can't say that, so he dresses it up (subconsciously, I dunno) as a worry that an author is getting objectified into "fragmented into retrievable bits of information". (Because first of all, contra Birkerts, to most of us who haven't majored in poetry, Wallace Stevens is just the sum of the lines he wrote. I would argue that he is an object even to scholars who study him -- because objectification is inevitable when you study something that deeply).

    Just theories...

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