Feb 6, 2010
Book Review: The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts
I read the Gutenberg Elegies in 2006 back when books were still being read in print (har har). The statistics were grim for the written word, but new studies indicate that the written word may be back but will reading survive in the long run? The eReader phenomenon had not yet hit critical mass even a few years ago, but we had been facing a problem at the library: students were not coming into the library. But, hits on the library web site had increased. Students had stopped coming to the library and had instead started doing all their research on the internet; they were checking the library's catalog online, using databases online (an awesome tool, by the way). Students were not using the library to come and stay: we had become more of a fast food restaurant: come and buy and go. I was working at the time with a colleague, B., and she was telling me how she predicted back in the 90s that book would eventually be replaced by flexible devices that would allow readers to peruse books as if they were "print." I laughed at the time, even though Sony had come out with eBook readers, and so had a few other companies - but these clunkers were expensive and not amenable to a large selection. So, I read Sven Birkert's book, which is a philosophical musing on reading, words, language, and the art of medium. At the time I was very nostalgic for books - even though books had not yet left the party. I could not imagine a life without physical books: the smell, the binding. the print, the presence of an actual book. But, then, as time went on, and Google announced its Books service, Amazon announced its Kindle, and now Apple, the iPad, I have come to realize that it is not "books" per se that we should be championing but READING. Will I read my child Where the Wild Things Are from an electronic device or from a book? Maybe both? What about WRITING. Or both: reading and writing. It is one thing to elegize on the loss of the book, but as Birkerts points out, it is a sadder thing to lament the loss of reading. Will the fast production of eBooks toss out reading? Probably not. Will blogs eliminate writing? Probably not? I think the divide is not necessarily due to books versus digital media, but rather, a divide between permanence and impermanence. Books represent permanence. Working in a library you come to know this especially when a patron comes in looking for a book he or she once read: they, panic-stricken, come to the circulation desk, "Where is the book I read twenty years ago?! It is not here. I remember it was right there," they say, pointing to a space in the library that is now reserved for computer terminals. Books are supposed to be permanent; they are supposed to be dogeared, yes, but they must persist; Sometimes people are not too happy to discover their book had been relegated to the basement, replaced by a PC - and some people even lament when their favorite book has donned a new cover art. The gods must be crazy. If the book is not to be found, a worker would have to be sent to request for the book at another location, have it sent by courier, and voilá here was the book, albeit a different jacket cover than they had remembered, but so what. Or better yet: let us say the book had been discarded?! If it had been tossed to the Friends of the Library book sale? What then? What if I had said, "Well, you can read the book on our eReader? Or you can print the entire book on a printer? Or, well, we have to inter-library loan that book from Fresno." The patron would have been unhappy. Maybe furious. We want our physical books like we want our web pages: now, and at this very moment. We want permanence but we want our permanent print like want our Safari to load: instantaneously. I am frustrated that people are so nostalgic for the superficial when they should rather be proactive for the right reasons. It is one thing to lament the loss of the physical book, but I find people are not putting their money where their hearts are. Is this an elegy for the book, or is it rather, an elegy for intellectual curiosity? What scares me more is not the loss of the physical book, but something deeper and scarier: the loss of critical thinking. If the book is only meant to be a fetish for nostalgia, then, it defeats the purpose. Books will be around for a while. Sure. As long as reading = pleasure. But, there will also be Kindles, etc., right alongside of them. What I worry about is access to new and interesting stories, information, words, language, pleasure. Will there be egalitarian places where people can read? Not everyone can afford a Kindle (and for that matter, not everyone can afford a book). Will libraries be places with free access to Google Books and usage of eBook readers? Google states once they open their databases of copyright and out of print in-copyright books by subscription, public libraries will be granted a terminal with free access. What if I want to read the Chronicles of Narnia at home but cannot afford the twenty bucks? In America, access to reading is taken for granted. We forget that it is a mark of a democratic society that champions unmediated, free access to knowledge. Will there continue to be places where people can write out their thoughts (like here on Blogger, which infamously deletes blogs for no apparent reason). Will proprietary devices create an elite upper class? I think impermanence is what we are scared of. We are afraid the loss of the book is the loss of civilization as we know it. What scares me more than anything is the middle-class person who says: "I don't have time to read" when there are people who really cannot afford to read. That scares me more than, "I want an iPad." Or, when I give students a list of books to read, and one of them says, "None of these stories interests me." But, then again, what am I hoping for? Have things really changed? Are people reading less in 2010 as they did in 1956? As they did in 1888? Actually, people are reading more, just not in print. But, the strange paradox is the advent of choice: I am sure today there are so many options to choose from when it comes to reading: just look at the number of books published every year; the number of news blogs, websites, etc. But, is every class of society given the opportunity to read? Who are the people reading more? The next thing to gage is writing. Are Americans writing more? Now, it may come back to permanence and impermanence. Is it the loss of something we are afraid of? If it is, what is that something? That's what I want to know. I will not sing an elegy for the book, but I may begin to sing an elegy for thought. If we are reading more, what are we reading, and if we are writing more, what are we writing. Should I do a Fahrenheit 451 and start memorizing my favorite book or should I go out and buy an iPad? Maybe, I should do both. But, what I think should be done is this: people need to ensure that reading is always made available to everyone in society. Budgets for information centers, books in braille, one book one city programs, writing workshops, poetry circles, lending libraries, etc., should not be cut. I lived in a posh city where citizens voted to not approve the library budget? What were they thinking? People said they just buy their books. They don't need a library. As we speed into the information age, we cannot make the mistake of denying reading to the masses just because books are like an iTunes song: 99 cents.