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.