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Gutenberg Is Still Dead

Sven Birkerts on “The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age”

“Silence and solitude,” Agni editor Sven Birkerts fears, are “increasingly exceptional.”

There was no Google in 1995, when Sven Birkerts wrote The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Cell phones were associated with Wall Street, and music shoppers had only the record store. Still, Birkerts, editor of Agni, the well-known literary magazine published at Boston University, and the author of six books and rafts of reviews, saw an alarming shift afoot in the infant Internet and other rapidly developing technologies. In Elegies, he raised a cry of caution.

A decade later, Elegies has been reissued, with a new introduction and afterword. On November 28, Birkerts read passages from the afterword and discussed the work with about 40 students and faculty at the Castle. The event was sponsored by BU’s Humanities Foundation, the Editorial Institute, and the College of Arts and Sciences English department.

In the early to mid 1990s, Birkerts said, he was fascinated by “a sudden appearance of screens everywhere.” Writing essays (on a typewriter) that coalesced into a book, “I was thrown into a public conversation and given the scripted role of the Luddite, the naysayer.” Indeed, the closing words of Elegies, referring to the accelerating pace of technological development, are “Refuse it.”

Today, he said, “I’m deeply enmeshed in that world” of e-mail, Internet, and cell phones. “I blame my students,” he said, to laughter.

And yet, he still feels the need to raise questions. For example, he said, ATMs represent “a tremendous boost, an improvement — but what is the loss on the other end? What are we giving up?” Birkerts’ fear is “a sort of hive life,” in which humans have become so artificially interconnected so quickly that they have given up “the whole notion of the individual self.”

As he puts it in his new afterword: “We are replacing the so-called real with the virtual, substituting the image for the thing,” while at the same time “bringing ourselves closer and closer to the possibility of constant electronic contact if not outright communication with others.

“As we do this, we make the silence and solitude of the old world increasingly exceptional. To sit for an hour in a quiet, rural environment feels almost metaphysical.”

Birkerts took questions from the audience, some wondering what was so wrong with progress. Asked whether his two children have less “self” than he did at their age, Birkerts said that the possibility worried him. “They are less driven into boredom, they are less driven into solitary manufacture of imaginative scenarios, because those scenarios are on tap and they are generated everywhere,” he said. “But then, that’s the eternal lament of the old days, when all we needed was a clothespin and we made our own fun!”

During a reception and book signing after the talk, student reaction to Birkerts’ theories was mixed. “I think I agree with him as far as the future of technology affecting society in a negative way,” said Abby Smith (GRS’07). “I’m a grad student, so maybe it’s a generational thing.”

Freshman Jeannie Nuss (COM’10) acknowledged, “I’m a little less pessimistic, but my perspective is a bit different.”

Patrick Kennedy can be reached at plk@bu.edu.