Monday, May 11, 2009

Gutenberg Elegies

pink lady slipper (Blackwood campus woods)

Over the past several weeks (okay, months) I've been reading the book The Gutenberg Elegies while I eat lunch. In case it's not obvious from the title, it's a book about books. Specifically, it's a book of essays on various aspects of reading and books, with implications for the information society and computing, etc. etc. etc. Although the title suggested otherwise, I was half-hoping that the tone would be optimistic. Alas, while the author (Sven Birkerts) does try and stay upbeat, he can't fully suppress his disappointment about the passing of the book.

I'm right with him when he describes how books have positively impacted his life, and how they've done all kinds of wonderful, transformative, mind-expanding things for him. But when he makes it seem like books were solely responsible for his intellectual life, he loses me.

I mean, yes, I like books a lot too, but I just can't think that using a computer instead of a book for the same darn task is the end of the world. Nor can I see where fetishizing a book does any good for a person's brain. Birkerts describes how a book grants an individual uninterrupted, solitary, concentrated space, and how important a dialogue is that involves one voice (the writer's) talking to someone else (the reader) with little or no distraction. But if these qualities are so universally important, and are exclusively found with books, then books will never completely disappear, right?

I don't want to misrepresent the Gutenberg Elegies. The author acknowledges how exciting computers are, and for being published in 1994 he's remarkably prescient about a lot of what was coming. But I don't understand nostalgia about books. Maybe this would make the author sad too -- that I don't even know what I'm missing, as part of a generation of adults from a hybrid background. Then again, maybe it would be comforting. I still have books in my intellectual landscape, but I don't cling to them unhealthily, and I'm willing to admit when something else would be better. I don't long for the days before computers, but I do approach new technologies with skepticism.

All of us are faced with navigating information in whatever forms it takes. Rather than eulogize, we should celebrate.


  1. I'm someone who can usually be found reading a physical book, but really, that's only because I find the library's collection of eBooks and Audiobooks to be sorely lacking. Personally, I look forward to using new technology in reading. I can't say how many times I've wanted to do something as simple as search to find a name or term that I know I've encountered before in the book. And hearing people rave about audiobooks, with their professional readers and whatnot, I wonder if I'm missing out. If my local public library had an electronic collection the size of its physical collection (will publishers allow this to happen?), I'd be aboard in a heartbeat.

  2. Did you see how students in some classes at Princeton will get Kindles? Now THAT would be fun:

  3. Wow, that's awesome. Are they really giving them away, or will they collect them at the end of the semester for use in the next class? From the school's perspective, I can't really think of any reason not to maintain ownership of them.

    On a related note, I heard a rumor (albeit a somewhat conspiracy-theory-ish one) that the new Kindle's ability to read PDFs will help spur publishers to release eBook versions of textbooks, because if a lot of students have handheld PDF readers, pirating textbooks will become a lot more prevalent. Kind of far-fetched, I know, but any news about publishers embracing new media always piques my interest. :-)