He uses an anecdote of the time he went as a book buyer to a 19th century literature professor who was selling off all his books as he went into computing.
The professor is an extreme case of one world replacing another and a case that Birkerts says is not isolated.
But the immediate threat is described as coming from television with the mindshare that grabs being the most pressing threat to reading. Presumably as this is pre-YouTube has Birkerts come across that it would be his own special version of hell – video and computers.
The great thing for Birkerts about tapping into the whole video versus books debate is that you are onto something big. But you are also potentially into something of a diversion. It is largely an educational debate about how children learn.
He warns about a modification in the form of reading:
“Whether all of this sounds dire or merely “different” will depend upon the reader’s own values and priorities. I find these portents of change depressing, but also exhilarating – at least to speculate about. On the one hand, I have a great feeling of loss and a fear about what habitations will exist for self and soul in the future. But there is also a quickening, a sense that important things are on the line.”
The things on the line are all of the things about reading that Birkerts values and he starts to list the developments that could happen as a result of erosion from technology and television.
1. Language erosion as dumbing down and simplification becomes the norm
2. A flattening of historical perspectives: “Once the materials of the past are unhoused from their pages, they will surely mean differently…”
3. The waning of the private self as social collectivisation challenges the individual isolated self