TOLSTOY'S DICTAPHONE by Sven Birkerts

TOLSTOY'S DICTAPHONE

Technology and the Muse
edited by

KIRKUS REVIEW

 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.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 1-55597-248-9
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Graywolf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1996




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