Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reading in an Electronic Age

I've been re-reading Sven Birkerts 1994 The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Thirteen years later, the book still seems relevant, perhaps even more relevant than it was in the mid-nineties. I've always been impressed, even a little dazzled, by Birkerts. He has a very sharp intelligence, a gift for clear and persuasive interpretive commentary, and a fluency with vocabulary and syntax which is, at times, almost musical, not to say Mozartian. I'm going to quote one passage at length from the chapter "The Owl Has Flown," both by way of example and because it pulls together many threads of concern that I have written about in various Throughlines posts during the last six months. I admire (and am persuaded) both by his initial description of the situation of mankind as he sees it, and by his subsequent articulation of the essential questions which follow hard upon his observations:

What is most conspicuous as we survey the general trajectory of reading across the century is what I think of as the gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal—the sacrifice of depth to lateral range...a shift from intensive to extensive reading. When books are rare, hard to obtain, and expensive, the reader must compensate through intensified focus, must like Menocchio read the same passages over and over, memorizing, inscribing the words deeply on the slate of the attention, subjecting them to an interpretive pressure not unlike what students of scripture practice upon their texts. This is ferocious reading — prison or desert island reading — and where it does not assume depth, it creates it.

In our culture, access is not a problem, but proliferation is. And the reading act is necessarily different than it was in its earliest days. Awed and intimidated by the availability of texts, faced with the all but impossible task of discriminating among them, the reader tends to move across surfaces, skimming, hastening from one site to the next without allowing the words to resonate inwardly. The inscription is light but it covers vast territories: quantity is elevated over quality. The possibility of maximum focus is undercut by the awareness of the unread texts that await. The result is that we know countless more "bits" of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. We know them without a stable sense of context, for where the field is that vast all schemes must be seen as provisional. We depend far less on memory; that faculty has all but atrophied from lack of use.

Interestingly, this shift from vertical to horizontal parallels the overall societal shift from bounded lifetimes spent in a single locales to lives lived in geographical dispersal amid streams of data. What one loses by forsaking the village and the magnification resulting from the repetition of the familiar, one may recoup by gaining a more inclusive perspective, a sense of the world picture.

This larger access was once regarded as worldliness — one travelled, knew the life of cities, the ways of diverse people... It has now become the birthright of anyone who owns a television set. The modern viewer is a cosmopolitan at one remove, at least potentially. He has a window on the whole world, is positioned, no matter how poor or well-to-do, to receive virtually the same infinite stream of data as every other viewer. There is almost nothing in common between the villager conning his book of scriptures by lantern-light and the contemporary apartment dweller riffing the pages of a newspaper while attending to live televised reports from Bosnia.

How is one to assess the relative benefits and liabilitie of these intrinsically different situations? The villager, who knows every scrap of lore about his environs, is blessedly unaware of cataclysms in distant lands. News of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 took months to travel across Europe. The media-besotted urbanite, by contrast, never loses his awareness of the tremors in different parts of the world.

We may ask, clumsily, which person is happier, or has a more vital grip on experience? The villager may have possessed his world more pungently, more sensuously; he may have found more sense in things owing both to the limited scope of his concern and the depth of his information — not to mention his basic spiritual assumptions. But I also take seriously Marx's quip about the "idiocy of rural life." Circumscribed conditions and habit suggest greater immersion in circumstance, but also dullness and limitation. The lack of a larger perspective hobbles the mind, leads to suspiciousness and wary conservatism; the clich├ęs about peasants are probably not without foundation. But by the same token, the constant availability of data and macroperspectives has its own diminishing returns. After a while the sense of scale is attenuated and a relativism resembling cognitive and moral paralysis may result. When everything is permitted, Nietzsche said, we have nihilism; likewise, when everything is happening everywhere, it gets harder to care about anything. How do we assign value? Where do we find the fixed context that allows us to create a narrative of sense about our lives? (72-3)

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