Fifty-odd essays on American letters and the American scene, by Harvard critic Birkerts (The Electric Life, 1988; An Artificial Wilderness, 1987), most of which consist of reviews already published in The Nation, The Atlantic, The New Republic, etc. Birkerts is an active and intelligent writer who spent most of the past decade observing the intellectual trends of the day: postmodernism, deconstruction, ``cultural literacy,'' video-mania, minimalism, etc. There was a lot to talk about and it kept him busy at the task: not many contemporary writers, and few contemporary movements, escape his notice here. The construction of a ``postmodern'' sensibility seems to be Birkerts's most general concern: In several essays, he keeps coming back to the question of how technological advances and economic developments of recent decades have altered our perception of our selves and of the world. Unfortunately, he has little to say on the subject that has not long since become commonplace—that does not, ultimately, boil down to an assertion that everything-has-changed-and-we-have-to-figure- out-how-to-deal-with-it. The decline of literacy, the weakening of cultural bonds, and the possible collapse of reading as a mass activity in modern society have been remarked and discussed many times before; Birkerts needs—and, generally, fails—to provide some slant of his own to make these phenomena interesting. Similarly, in his treatment of particular authors, Birkerts rarely goes beyond the depth of flap-copy synopsis (as in his description of Henry Miller as ``Tough guy, bohemian, sexual threat, literary hero''). The best parts of the book are those that seem not to have been written as reviews (``Objections Noted: Word Processing,'' for example, or ``Teaching in a Video Age''), in which Birkerts is able to give his opinions freer play—but these are heavily outnumbered by the reprints. Recycled journalism: of interest for the subjects only, not for the author.
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