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

3.69 of 5 stars 3.69  ·  rating details  ·  383 ratings  ·  57 reviews
"[A] THOUGHTFUL AND HEARTFELT BOOK...A literary cri de coeur--a lament for literature and everything implicit in it."
--The Washington Post
In our zeal to embrace the wonders of the electronic age, are we sacrificing our literary culture? Renowned critic Sven Birkerts believes the answer is an alarming yes. In The Gutenberg Elegies, he explores the impact of technology on th
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ebook, 256 pages
Published November 14th 2006 by Faber & Faber (first published 1994)
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Michael
I probably shouldn't even talk about this book considering I didn't read the entire thing...what would VirJohn think? But, I will have the self-restraint to not give it a star rating. Instead, I'll just respond to it.

I've read a few of the most applicable chapters from this book, and have adapted it into a lit review, but I might be missing aspects of Birkerts' argument. However, this is what I've picked up from what I read: Birkerts isn't optimistic about what the internets are going to do to t
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Charlie
(Note: apparently this book, which extensively denounces and condemns twenty-first century technology, is available on Kindle and as an eBook. The irony is almost painful.)

I read "The Owl Has Flown" for a class about four years ago, and had been wanting to read more of Birkerts' work since then. It took me a while to track down this copy, and even longer to finally read it. When I did, it was disappointing. Sven Birkerts is absurdly pretentious and pedantic, while often being very ignorant. Ther
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Tiffoknee the 3rd Conner
Mar 07, 2008 Tiffoknee the 3rd Conner rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in literary and social commentary.
Recommended to Tiffoknee the 3rd by: No one. I checked it out from the library.
Shelves: indispensable
Sven Birkerts is one of my favorite social commentators. He primarily writes about literature and its place in the current digitally-dominant intellectual landscape, but he is also a man who knows how to coin a worthy phrase. Any who know me know that I have a special weakness for the essayist. I think the essay is one of the most under-appreciated genres in the literary world. Birkerts proves me right. While some of the themes may seem outdated and proven inconsequential as a result of the tech ...more
Sarah Pascarella
A strong argument for why reading literature in book form is so important, exactly at the time when readers are abandoning books for newer modes and technologies (Kindle, electronic downloads, etc.)--or, sadly, not reading at all. Birkerts also makes a compelling case for solitary contemplation, facilitated through books, in an age where everything is becoming connected on all fronts. The reader can tell Birkerts is partially in awe of the new technologies, but mostly heartbroken as he realizes ...more
Bill
Nov 28, 2008 Bill rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Sociology & Communications students
Recommended to Bill by: A Cascadia Instructor
Shelves: essays, reference
Birkerts is on to something here. While he's certainly not the first to realize electronic gadgetry addiction is dumbing us down, he writes some compelling essays that illustrate his point very well. I enjoyed reading this book. Why "only" 3 stars? Not all of his essays are approachable. His erudition shows through sharply and he enjoys showing off with muscular prose; overselling his point. Had he simplified it a bit, written "down market", if you will, to a more plebeian readership, he would h ...more
Julene
This book spoke to me about the loss of wisdom we are experiencing in our culture as a result of electronics that speed up our sense of time. Sound bites. Speed that our brain tries to keep up with. When I read this I was in an intensive of Continuum Movement titled Portals of Perception surrounded by rolfers. Sven is an intellectual who weaves incredibly rich sentences. I have his newest book on my list, The Art of Time in Memoir, part of teh Graywolf series on craft. He is the perfect author f ...more
Regina
Aug 05, 2015 Regina rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Regina by: The Sharing Table
Birkerts's premise in this series of essays is that technology is causing irreparable damage to the value of reading and literature. It was interesting to read this book (copyright 1994) in light of how much further we have come since Birkerts penned these essays.

I LOVED the first section of the book titled "The Reading Self". It was fun to hear Birkerts speak my own thoughts and experiences about reading right back to me. In the final third of the book,however, he started to lose me. I found Bi
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Ori
A beautiful book about reading. There's no bludgeoning of the senses, just a pleasant, thoughtful read.
bookthump
When Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies was published in 1994, the Internet was an infant. The primary purpose of a cell phone was to make phone calls. Texting was barely a thing. It wasn’t until three years later that you could order a DVD in the mail through Netflix. Youtube was a decade away. iDevices didn’t exist yet, nor did e-readers. Amazon had just been founded and wouldn’t release their popular Kindle device until 2007, a year after Birkerts released an updated 2006 edition of The Gu ...more
Steven
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jon
Birkerts somewhat awkwardly combines the format of a memoir of his youth as a bookish teenager and son of Latvian immigrants (Mom approved of his reading habit, Dad didn't) with a soft-spoken jeremiad--more of a meditation, really--about reading, its place in our lives and its possible demise under the onslaught of sites like this one and the rise of digital culture. In the memoir sections, I especially liked the parts about being a bookstore manager and habitue (as a former bookstore employee, ...more
Rhoda
The sections on reading, especially chapter 2, were the best parts - highly personal + reflective + engaging and resoundingly sincere. However, Birkert's fixation on the dying of print culture and the ascendance of electronic gadgets and hypertexts was excessively dour. The question I ask myself after reading this book is "Am I a better reader for having grown up in the techno era rather than in a more simplified one?" To be sure, there have been many drawbacks about using the internet and being ...more
Paul
This was an interesting book. I can see Birkerts point that reading and morality have changed a lot since the 1950s. Of course, he goes to great length to avoid explicit discussion of morality, but for me the same arguments apply.

What I don't agree with the author is his assertion that technology is the antithesis of depth and reflection--soul as he calls it. As a pro-techie, I find that technology allows me to explorer a broader range of ideas and empowers me to study any one of those ideas to
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Amy
I thought I would agree more with this author bemoaning the fate of reading since I see first-hand in teaching American literature how few of my students actually read ... or have ever read a book for that matter. As the author says, it's true that many people in the youngest generations are more comfortable with television, movies, and the internet than they are with a book. It's true that students seem to more often have difficulty understanding literature without being guided through it. I of ...more
Laura
This book is almost 20 years old, and despite some clearly dated passages (the clunkiness of the computers... no smartphones or e-readers), the thinking is still pretty prescient. For example, Birkerts talks about multitasking - today we take that for granted (as I type this, I'm also watching the evening news). Is this a good thing? He posits not: we miss that inner voice, the opportunity to hear and think without mediation of some sort.

One question that kept popping to mind was the question of
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Dan
The first 1/3 of this book is beautiful. The author takes his time explaining how books have changed his life and how books impact us on a daily basis. He talks about his idea of "deep time" which is time that we don't know is passing because we are so enmeshed with our books. After the first 1/3 of the book, though, he kind of goes downhill. The next 2/3 of the book are a pretentious and pedantic verbal abuse of electronic technology and high-minded literary criticism. It's interesting and info ...more
Rochelle
The author of this book might sound a little nuts because of his conservative views on technology, reading, and the future of the printed word. I laughed at his thinly veiled disdain towards any attempts to revise and open up the canon.
However, I was struck by the core argument of his book of essays: something is being lost (depth, perhaps) in this noisy, laterally expanding, technologically dependent world that we now live in. Birkerts laments that the destabilization of the author and the ris
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Lauren
I appreciate the points Birkerts is trying to make about reading, but I was prevented from really getting into it because I was put off by the language. It's too flowery for my taste - the subject doesn't lend itself well to lush prose. Ironically, he was inspired to write about this after students in one of his short story classes felt the same way about a Henry James story.

I really did want to like this. Especially because, like me, Birkerts spent his formidable years working in a bookstore, i
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E M
I don't really like non-fiction. At all. But this book worked really well for a school project, and though I don't like non-fiction, this book was good. I was interested in what Birkerts had to say and I look forward to doing more of the synthesis work required by my project in order to more fully "enter into the conversation."
Megan
It's hard to believe this book was written almost a decade ago, the insights into technology and entertainment are still so fresh. Except he uses the phrase "electronic media" instead of the common practice of "digital"; so nineties. And his essays lack a certain enthusiasm that arises from all of the excitingly innovative developments of the last few years. Birkerts writes with the bleak prognostication skills of Nostradamus; all gloom and plagues for the bookless future. AND he writes from a p ...more
Sam Berner
Sad indeed that someone as gifted as Sven would also be this damaged - I mean, the guy did nothing throughout the whole book but stared dejectedly into his intellectual navel. Lots of Freudian slips there that indicate why.. And the book world has still not come to an end, not as long as we live, and after we are gone, who cares. I am Sven's generation, and I read comfortably books not just off my laptop, but of Kindle and my HTC. Books. The same way I read them on paper. Not sure if I understan ...more
Carissa
I found a dusty and slightly moldy old copy of this book in my university's study abroad library in Costa Rica, full of underlines and marginalia. It was the perfect book to read then, when I was cut off from most of the technology I normally use, and when I had time every morning and night to read leisurely and understand the arguments the author was making as they applied to me.

I enjoyed the writing throughout, and I particularly enjoyed Parts II and III, although the section on hypertext is
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Joy
Birkerts makes a number of good points in this book about how reading and writing occupy a less-esteemed place in contemporary society. The later chapters on the Internet feel a bit dated (the book was published in 1994), but he makes astute predictions on how the broadening of social networks and increasing number of voices available for access make it difficult for any dominant voice to occupy one's attention for long. Long-winded at times. I liked the bits of personal history revealed in the ...more
Laurelyn
qInteresting but outdated and pessimistic. I er what he would have made of the Harry Potter phenomenon, not that I classify Rowling as literary. And I'm sure the Fifty Shades trilogy would give him absolute conniptions.
Sarah
An interesting and helpful reflection on how reading literature is a different experience than the kind of reading we do online. Discusses the depth and self-reflection required to really engage with good novels, and the different way that orients a reader to the world. I don't share his alarm for all text electronic, but I do agree that reading fiction requires more commitment and stamina from a reader than does reading online. Overall, I enjoyed the thoughtful essays and appreciated the opport ...more
Stephen
It's aged well in the twenty years since it's publication, though I find Birkets at his best when he's focused more on the act of reading than worrying over what will happen in to readers in the digital age.
Meghan
Recommended by Jimmy Neenan
Mark Isero
This book is organized in three parts, and the first, which focuses on the process of reading, is the best. Birkerts argues that something nearly spiritual happens when we read that doesn't happen with other activities. A self-proclaimed Luddite, Birkerts suggests that reading alters time and leads to duration, where authors have authority and readers reconstruct their souls. After an excellent beginning, the book becomes a bit heavy handed. Overall, I think the author had some prescient things ...more
Jennifer
This is...ok. I really liked some of the essays - specifically "The Shadow Life of Reading" - but in regards to its mission to mourn the age of electronic reading, it's not that effective. I liked the meta-ness of reading a book about reading, and I like the sort of disembodied way Birkerts can inhabit our consciousness. I think that's the reason why didn't really like it when he talked about himself; I don't like being reminded that he is a real person.
Brad
Mr. Birkerts is taking a go at the coming of digital media as an old-school literary critic should. Birkerts is acting as a romantic who sees the book as the apex of collective spirituality/humanness. What's the worst we can expect in losing the physical form of knowledge (i.e., the bound book)? A privatized, class-based availability of knowledge? A frozen stratification of the education/professional system? I think we can live with out that.
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Sven Birkerts is an American essayist and literary critic of Latvian ancestry. He is best known for his book The Gutenberg Elegies, which posits a decline in reading due to the overwhelming advances of the Internet and other technologies of the "electronic culture."

Birkerts graduated from Cranbrook School and then from the University of Michigan in 1973. He has taught writing at Harvard University
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More about Sven Birkerts...
The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again The Other Walk: Essays Reading Life: Books for the Ages My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time Readings

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“I often find that a novel, even a well-written and compelling novel, can become a blur to me soon after I've finished reading it. I recollect perfectly the feeling of reading it, the mood I occupied, but I am less sure about the narrative details. It is almost as if the book were, as Wittgenstein said of his propositions, a ladder to be climbed and then discarded after it has served its purpose.” 144 likes
“What reading does, ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that a life is not a sequence of lived moments, but a destiny...the time of reading, the time defined by the author's language resonating in the self, is not the world's time, but the soul's. The energies that otherwise tend to stream outward through a thousand channels of distraction are marshaled by the cadences of the prose; they are brought into focus by the fact that it is an ulterior, and entirely new, world that the reader has entered. The free-floating self--the self we diffusely commune with while driving or walking or puttering in the kitchen--is enlisted in the work of bringing the narrative to life. In the process, we are able to shake off the habitual burden of insufficient meaning and flex our deeper natures.” 30 likes
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