READINGS by Sven Birkerts


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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.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-55597-283-7
Page count: 274pp
Publisher: Graywolf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1998


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