Books by Sven Birkerts

Sven Birkerts is the author of Readings, The Gutenberg Elegies, and a memoir, My Sky Blue Trades. He teaches at Harvard University and at the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is the editor of Agni. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.


CHANGING THE SUBJECT by Sven Birkerts
ESSAYS & ANTHOLOGIES
Released: Oct. 6, 2015

"Cogent and thoughtful, if nostalgic, essays urging our attention not to iPads and smartphones but to art."
A literary critic questions the effect of digital technology on minds, literature, and creativity. Read full book review >
THE OTHER WALK by Sven Birkerts
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Sept. 1, 2011

"It's impossible to read these close-to-the-ground essays without reminiscing on one's own past, connecting the dots between possessions and emotions, say, or reconciling memories of old lovers and friends with the way things turned out."
Intellectualized personal remembrances of things past. Read full book review >
READING LIFE by Sven Birkerts
NONFICTION
Released: April 1, 2007

"Birkerts is a dedicated reader and a novelist's best friend."
A literary critic (Readings, 1999, etc.) and professor (English/Harvard Univ.) revisits some novels he read years ago and finds in them both enduring beauty and a sometimes shifting resonance. Read full book review >
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Aug. 26, 2002

"A piece of hard work, dredged and sifted often to the dregs of misery—but it registers and holds."
Keen, affecting, suspicious, evocative, subtly cool memoir of Birkerts's first 30 years. Read full book review >
READINGS by Sven Birkerts
NONFICTION
Released: Feb. 1, 1999

Apart from a few purely literary digressions, Birkerts (English/Mount Holyoke Coll.) continues to pluck at the nerve he first touched with his bibliophilic, anti-technology The Gutenberg Elegies. Collected from such literary venues as Ploughshares and the Hungry Mind Review, as well as more mainstream magazines like the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, these essays, whether on current biography, ecocritical literary theory, or Robert Lowell's posthumous reputation, usually have in common that elegiac tone that Birkerts has made his speciality. The author gloomily surveys from a literary viewpoint the terrain of cyberspace and the information society that have already been mapped out by cultural critic Neil Postman, neo-Luddite Theodore Roszak, and others. Birkerts's take on the Internet and the 500-channel world is not new, or even well grounded (he freely admits to not using a computer or e-mail). His appeal to books' power to hold and shape the imagination, however, lends some ballast for his curmudgeonliness. His discussion of American nostalgia and its entropic fate is much easier to walk through as it is accompanied by signposts from Updike's "Rabbit" books, and while his "States of Reading" reaches familiar conclusions about the activity, it gets a boost from Italo Calvino and Saul Bellow. Unsurprisingly, Readings also reveals a hearty professorial dislike for fashionable trends in fiction and literary theory—in "This Year's Canon," Birkerts drives a nail into the coffin of postmodernism with positively 19th-century gusto. Other essays are straight-from-the-lectern Eng. Lit. talks'such as his close reading of Keats's "To Autumn" and his examination of The Great Gatsby—or easily digested reviews of Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons and Don DeLillo's Underworld. Even when reviewing DeLillo's 800-page bestseller, however, Birkerts casts his essay in the dying light of literature. Pessimists about book culture will find plenty of simpatico musings; others had best check their optimism beforehand. Read full book review >
TOLSTOY'S DICTAPHONE by Sven Birkerts
NON-FICTION
Released: Sept. 1, 1996

Stepping down a bit from his Arnoldian brand of technophobia, Birkerts (Gutenberg Elegies, 1994) gathers fellow writers' essays together to confront the wired future. The hot topic of the digitally driven decline of reading makes for a timely inauguration for Graywolf's new Forum series, with new essays from Paul West, Mark Slouka, Alice Fulton, Wendy Lesser, Albert Goldbarth, and Birkerts himself. Tolstoy discarded his dictaphone (a present from Thomas Edison) because it was ``too dreadfully exciting,'' but most of the writers here find technology simply dreadful, though a few are caught up in its excitement. Askold Melnyczuk, who supplies the Tolstoy anecdote, leads the reactionary pack with such shrill opinions as, ``Technology is class war by other means.'' Paul West is no less impassioned but far wittier as he divulges his chaotic typewriter- and paper-driven method of composition and skewers the fading of literary culture. In another, more reflective essay on the writing life, Jonathan Franzen defends the obsolete, whether technological, cultural, or creative. Birkerts's contribution is a stump speech on the intellectual value of reading on paper as opposed to computer screen. Not all these writers are averse to technology: Wendy Lesser describes her enthrallment with e-mail; Alice Fulton finds genuine benefit (and personal relevance) in researching her family's rare medical condition through the Internet; and Carole Maso riffs engagingly on hypertext's revolutionary potentials. Only Robert Pinsky, who has both translated Dante and worked on a CD-ROM ``electronic novel,'' demonstrates a knowledge of science's nuts and bolts, much less its perspective; his essay reflects on his engineer father-in-law's experience of the 20th century's technological quantum leaps. Though Birkerts packs this forum on the side of literary Ludditism, these varied responses to technophilia and the Information Age still have plenty of individual charm. Read full book review >
NONFICTION
Released: Dec. 1, 1994

An inveterate bookworm bemoans the end of a literary era. Birkerts (American Energies: Essays on Fiction, 1992, etc.) continues his fire-and-brimstone preachings about the electronic age's negative impact on society in this book of essays about the fate of reading. Gone, he says, are the well-read laypeople of yore and the witty, erudite critic who had their ear. Instead, we have technopunks who can retrieve libraries of information with a keystroke and enjoy MTV but who cannot appreciate Henry James. Despite Birkerts's compelling language, his argument is flimsy and unfocused. He bases his treatise on a vague sense that ``our culture feels impoverished'' as a result of the decline of the book. And though he admits that this is subjective and tries to back it up with hard proof, it is here that his failure is most striking. Birkerts assumes his premise—that we must preserve reading and writing in their current forms- -and therefore never proves it. He argues that in the electronic age, what one critic called extensive reading has replaced intensive reading, and that casual writing has replaced permanent writing, because the act of writing is now easier and reading material more universally accessible. The same could be said of every innovation since the advent of literacy—the ballpoint, the typewriter, the printing press that Birkerts is elegizing. He fails to explain why the electronic revolution threatens ``our culture'' any more than these previous technological advances. Coincidentally, Birkerts feels that the ideal technological balance was reached just around the time he was growing up, and it's been downhill ever since. The reader can't help wondering if he would have taken up his quill to defend the 15th-century status quo, just as he now turns to his broken-down Olivetti to defend ours. He correctly pegs himself as a curmudgeon. A simplistic and unconvincing jeremiad. Read full book review >
AMERICAN ENERGIES by Sven Birkerts
ESSAYS & ANTHOLOGIES
Released: June 17, 1992

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. Read full book review >