Sunday, February 28, 2010

TSS--Insufficient Reading

The Sunday

From Booking Through Thursday:

I’ve seen this quotation in several places lately. It’s from Sven Birkerts’ ‘The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age’:

“To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or one’s orientation toward it.”

To what extent does this describe you?

I know I'm really late with responding to this (as usual), but after considering it, I thought it was worth a post.  Then the post turned into a rant and I decided to make it my Sunday Salon post.

I think a bibliophile's first reaction to the above quote is probably defensive, especially in regards to the "insufficiency" portion.  After all, it's probably been assumed for most of us--at least by some people--that we read because we don't have a life, not because we enjoy it.  Of course that's bull, but it's still annoying. 

However, I don't think that's what Sven Birkerts is talking about at all.  I think he's saying that by opening a book and reading it, voluntarily and purely for our own enjoyment or edification, we're admitting we don't know everything there is to know.  Books open up another viewpoint to a reader (that's what I love about art, by the way--not just books but all art--that it gives you a chance to experience the world from another person's point of view), and by searching out that viewpoint and agreeing to go on the journey of the book with the writer, we're admitting that our own world view and experiences are insufficient for understanding the world or our own lives.  So I actually think that describes most readers to a tee, at least in the general sense.

That being said, I don't agree with the majority of Birkerts' ideas.  Robin from My Two Blessings wrote a great response to this quote where she actually read The Gutenberg Elegies and listed some of his main theses.  I recommend you go to her blog to read the whole thing, but suffice it to say that Birkerts thinks civilization is going the way of Babylon, and it's all because of reading electronically.  Language and historical perspective are all deteriorating because we're hooked on computers.

People who make claims like this strike me as elitist snobs.  Whatever issues you have with reading eBooks, being able to access them online has made learning, academia, and knowledge much more egalitarian.  Why are universities like Princeton and Yale famous?  It's not because they're "better schools" than any place else--a student will learn or not learn whatever they put their mind to no matter where they go.  It's because of their libraries.  Universities are repositories of knowledge because of their libraries, not because of their students or their professors.  The better the library, the better the school.  Now, however, you don't need to attend or teach at the big schools to access their libraries, because you can access them anywhere, online.  The "historical perspective" Birkerts values so highly is in all likelihood a historical pedagogy that he feels is being undermined by broader access to people who haven't jumped through the hoops of higher ed.  As Birkert says in an article in The Atlantic (side note:  isn't that magazine going bankrupt?), "The book is part of a system....  Literature—our great archive of human expression—is deeply contextual and historicized."  Yes, it is, especially when that context is provided by a system that just happens to favor those who are wealthy and of a particular race and gender. 

Furthermore, while I would agree that language is becoming less formalized (English, anyway, I don't know about other languages), that's not a result of the interwebs.  That's been happening since, oh, the eighteenth century???  To go along with our society as a whole becoming less formalized.  I wouldn't say I want to read an entire book in netspeak, but personally I don't have a problem with language changing.  It happens when people are using and engaging with words; get used to it.  Or better yet, celebrate it.  But trying to stop it is like sticking your finger in a dam.

People like Birkerts want to limit reading--he says you should only read "real" books.  I'm sure he also thinks you should only read "real" literature--as defined by him, of course.  It's just all rather restrictive, isn't it?  Yes, eBooks have their issues and problems, but they are just a format--it's what the format allows for that Birkerts objects to.  Although I'm sure he knows a lot about reading, I don't think crying the sky is falling because of Kindle is helping readers at all.

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