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The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

My core fear is that we, as a culture, as a species, are becoming shallower; that we have turned from depth–from the Judeo-Christian premise of unfathomable mystery–and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness. That we are giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millenia been central to the very idea of culture, and that we are pledging instead to a faith in the web. What is our idea, our ideal, of wisdom these days? Who represents it? Who even invokes it? Our postmodern culture is a vast fabric of competing isms; we are leaderless and subject to the terrors, masked as freedoms, of an absolute relativism. It would be wrong to lay all the blame at the feet of technology, but more wrong to ignore the great transformative impact of new technological systems–to act as if it’s all just business as usual. (p. 111-12)

This is the blurb from the Google Books page:

In The Gutenberg Elegies, nationally renowned critic Sven Birkerts powerfully argues that we are living in a state of intellectual emergency – an emergency caused by our willingness to embrace new technologies at the expense of the printed word. As we rush to get “on line, ” as we make the transition from book to screen, says Birkerts, we are turning against some of the core premises of humanism – indeed, we are putting the idea of individualism itself under threat. The printed page and the circuit driven information technologies are not kindred – for Birkerts they represent fundamentally opposed forces. In their inevitable confrontation our deepest values will be tested. Birkerts begins his exploration from the reader’s perspective, first in several highly personal accounts of his own passion for the book, then in a suite of essays that examines what he calls “the ulterior life of reading.” Against this, Birkerts sets out the contours of the transformed landscape. In his highly provocative essay “Into the Electronic Millenium” and in meditations on CD-ROM, hypertext, and audio books, he plumbs the impact of emerging technologies on the once stable reader-writer exchange. He follows these with a look at the changing climate of criticism and literary practice. He concludes with a blistering indictment of what he sees as our willingness to strike a Faustian pact with a seductive devil.

A catchy title gets you every time. A variation on Benjamin’s, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Selected pieces from The Gutenberg Elegies.

A vast range of reviews to chose from.

David Gelernter reviews Orwell’s Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest, by Peter Huber and The Gutenberg Elegies in National Review, 1995, reposted in BNET.

One page reviews by John Ottenhoff and Susan Lewis-Wallace and Dean Blobaum

I have added Emily Dickinson’s poems to the blogroll, so that There is no Frigate like a Book is accessible to go with this post.

February 8, 2008 Posted by | books, digitisation, hypertext, Internet, World Wide Web | | Leave a comment