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The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

by Sven Birkerts

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-571-19849-X
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 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.