What is the place of reading in our culture? What is the connection between reading and the self? How do modifications in our way of reading impinge on our mental life? These are some of the more pressing questions posed by Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies. Through a collection of essays based on autobiographical, anecdotal and analytic accounts, Birkerts conducts an "inquiry into the place of reading and sensibility in what is becoming an electronic culture". On one hand, the book presents a cheerful celebration of reading. On the other, it delivers an admonishing and apocalyptic sermon on individual and collective change brought about by an ever-increasing use of technology. "We are in the midst of an epoch-making transition; that the societal shift from print-based to electronic communications is as consequential for culture as was the shift instigated by Gutenberg's invention of movable type."(p.192) At opposition in Birkert's thesis are the written word and the "culprit technology".
The bound book, claims Birkert, "is the ideal vehicule for the written word" and print, unlike any other medium, "exalts the word, fixing it into permanence".
This same character of permanence of the printed word provides society with a tool for preserving and passing on its subjective essence: "our entire collective, subjective history -the soul of our societal body-is encoded in print. Is encoded, and has for countless generations been passed along by way of the word, mainly through books". (p.20) Books, argues Birkerts, provide narratives that help us to understand the "forces impinging on our lives". They also provide us with "a space for reflection", a "kind of wisdom that cannot be discovered elsewhere" and with experiences which we can use "as a basis for interpreting the behaviour of people around us".
Birkert postulates an intricate "metaphysical" relationship between reading and "the self". The experience of reading allows us to "question our origins and destinations and to conceive of ourselves as souls". Reading has the power to bring about a change in "the whole complex of the self" because it is "an agency of self-making". It is a means to "actualize and augment certain inner powers", to deepen one's "self-understanding" to establish one's "inwardness' and "essential selves".
This relationship between the written word and the self is something Birkerts does not want to see lost or altered. Herein lies Birkerts' dilemma for "everything is poised for change". In fact, "our culture has begun to go through what promises to be a total metamorphosis". Although society has experienced great changes before now, people's experience of the world "has altered more in the last fifty years than in the many centuries preceding ours". "Isolated changes" have, as a result of "electronic communications media and computer use", become systemic. "A finely filamented electronic scrim has slipped between ourselves and the so-called 'outside world'" resulting in a condition of "almost unbroken mediation". These changes have led Birkerts to conclude that "all is not well in the world of print and letters". "The printed word is part of a vestigial order that we are moving away from-by choice or by societal compulsion". We are moving away from "the patterns and habits of the printed page and toward a new world distinguised by its reliance on electronic communication".(p.118) We are moving from "the culture of the book to the culture of electronic communication".
So important are literature, books, reading and the written word for the development and sustenance of the individual that any threat to them is a threat to "the self". So strongly does Birkerts believe this, that he is willing to argue that "every acquiescence to the circuitry is marked by a shrinkage of the sphere of autonomous self-hood". A fragmented sense of time, reduced attention span, impatience with sustained inquiry, shattered faith in explanatory narratives, divorce from the past, an absence of vision, language erosion, waning of the private self: these are, in Birkerts' vision, the nasty side-effects of "electronic postmodernity". Increasing dependance on technology puts us "in great danger of collectively sacrificing a very precious, indeed a defining part of our experience." What is a stake is our very "soul", the essence of who and what we are both individually and as a society.
For Birkerts, the postmodern world offers us a Faustian bargain in which we sell our souls in exchange for a "digital future". "The argument of our time", "the argument between technology and the soul" is more than a squabble. It is nothing less than a "war". However, Birkert admits that it is largely a personal war because "technological ingenuity will set the agenda" and "Americans will follow". As literary culture declines in prestige, as "history takes a swerve", as the "circuit-driven renovation takes place", Birkerts plans to desist. The Gutenberg Elegies ends with two words that, implicitly and explicitly, invite its readers to imitate Birkerts, to face the "digital future", and to "refuse it".
The Gutenberg Elegies is a nostalgic and romantic lament not only for the loss of the printed word but of books, literature, reading, history, culture, language, sensibility, the past, community, faith, the self and the soul. Responsible for their untimely demise is technology. Were it not for Birkerts' colourful, engaging, and eloquent style, his argument might seem less convincing. As it stands, his excessive indulgence in extreme technological determinism and reductionism make him an easy target for criticism. Indeed, Birkerts conveniently blames technology for the loss of all that he cherishes. The questions he raises about the relation between reading, technology and mind are thought-provoking and need to be asked and studied. Unfortunately, his answers to the questions skirt over issues and point fingers rather than encourage understanding.
Fortunately, Birkerts is willing to admit from the start of his book that his "luddite stance" will not be popular. He dodges potential criticism by frequently reminding the reader that he writes from a personal, autobiographical perspective.
It is largely from this perspective that The Gutenberg Elegies can best be interpreted. While Birkerts' account of his personal love of reading is inspiring and motivating, it must be seen as being a truly personal account. Reading, for Birkerts takes on a very particular significance, one which is perhaps too narrow to be generalizable to very many individuals. Indeed, not all persons are like Birkerts in their love of reading - with or without the influence of technology. Not all persons, be they readers or not, have experienced the transformation of self and soul that Birkerts believes operates as a result of exposure to the written word.
Birkerts writes from a personal perspective and his book will likely provoke differently reactions from each reader. Many who read his book may not agree with the sermon he delivers. At the same time, it is important to seek possible answers to the questions he poses and to consider, particularly in the context of education, the implications of some of the issues he raises. It may well be that the book as we know it is no longer or has never been an effective medium for providing children with perspectives on the world. The incursion of multimedia in schools may not yet be sufficiently widespread in order to gage its general effect. At the same time, we may need to recognize that new mediums must be experimented with given possible limitations of the book, as we know it, for educating children.
The Gutenberg Elegies presents a passionate, eloquent and candid celebration of reading that will likely move many individuals to want to hold on to and partake more of the word. It may not be the written word, at least not written on paper. It may not be what Birkerts had in mind. In the "digital future" the word will likely be transmitted most often via binary code. Nonetheless, it will continue to capture our attention and, perhaps, even our soul. Thus, while Birkerts mourns the loss of the written word, others will rejoice in its coming alive with new forms, colours, shapes and sounds that have been made possible by the wonders and magic of technology.