Wednesday, December 31, 2008

book review - The Gutenberg Elegies

This is a book that, even with a 2006 edition, has been overtaken by events. When Sven Birkerts sat down to write his original draft the individual could still have a degree of choice towards technology and decide to opt-out of a fair proportion of it.

However, as his 2006 postscript admits, by the time this book had been around for a while that situation had largely changed. The pace of technological development was supported by a hunger among most people to take advantage of the benefits it could offer. So emailing rather than letter writing has become the norm, using the web as a research tool something that students are now expected to do as a matter of course.

But crucially in terms of reading there is still a degree of choice about how far the individual goes. If you strip it back to that question, and Birkerts often makes it a much wider debate which can be unhelpful, then the choice seems to be a straight one between electronic reading and sticking with paper.

Unlike email and social networking the pressure on the individual to move to electronic reading is not as great as in other areas and along with Birkerts there are going to be plenty of people, myself included, that are happy sticking to paper.

But the crux of his argument is slightly deeper and what Birkerts is arguing is that in a society where concentration spans are shortening and more and more information is consumed via a screen the art of “deep reading” is being lost. What he refers to as “deep reading” is the ability of the reader to sit in isolation, distraction free and allow themselves to become absorbed in a book to the extent that their dreams entwine with the author’s and they are lost in the worlds conjured up by the written page and their imagination.

Where Birkerts has a point is in highlighting the dangers, he refers a great deal to the soul, of what happens when this ability is lost. But the problem I have with this point of view is the blanket dislike of technology. In many respects technology has improved the experience for the reader. Finding out about authors and making those stepping stone connections between works is now much easier aided by the web.

There is also a sense of balance that needs to be stressed here that Birkerts is not too good at. For instance if I really enjoyed playing football on a PlayStation does that mean that I would stop having the urge or the ability to go and kick a ball around in the garden? Likewise the chances of paperbacks disappearing soon can be overestimated. Electronic book readers have broken through this year but to the extent that you see them on trains and in the hands of your friends there is still a long way to go.

There are valid points here about the society we live in and the impact that a digital culture could be having on the next generation of readers but in a way what this book shows is that the pace of the debate is moving so quickly it is far too early to make judgements.

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