Reading in the Electronic Age

This past month I have been slowly working through Sven Birkert’s book of essays The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age. I picked it up for 50cents at a library book sale, rummaging around in the picked-over literature section. I met Birkerts one time, while I was interning with Agni and primarily only interested in meeting poets. If I had read this book before my MFA, I think I would’ve stalked him a little.

Normally I don’t underline or otherwise mar any of my books, but with this one I couldn’t resist. I’m not a luddite (I have a blog, facebook, twitter AND personal website, there’s no fear of technology there!) but I have been a little nervous about the rising popularity of e-books. I know, they’re cheaper, easier to carry, the future, but they just aren’t books.

Reading a hardback or paperback book involves more than just the intellect–you’ve got the weight of the book in your hands (varying depending on what you’re reading), the texture of paper, the act of turning a page, and, if you are lucky enough to be reading an old book, the lovely old-book smell. Real books are more than just information, they are Artifacts! or treasures. The feeling of being in a used bookstore, the books clustered all around, yellowed and waiting, is pure magic.

Sometimes I am sad to be living in a digital age, where hardly any of my peers read or when they do read its the glossy million-book wonders that are about as shallow as a kiddy swimming pool.

On one hand, I crave a luddite existence–no TV, no computer, pure living–on the other hand I realize that this is nostalgia for something I have never experienced. Birkerts says that “Everything in contemporary society discourages interiority. More and more of our exchanges take place via circuits, and in their very nature those interactions are such as to keep us hovering in the virtual now, a place away from ourselves.” And I think its true–I long for the silence that our culture makes near-impossible.

Its a conflict, especially, being a writer. There is the need (and expectation from publishers) to promote oneself, at least a little, to connect, to make ties. And you’ve got to meet them where they stand. I’m not sure what it would mean to try to work some more of that nostalgic silence into my life–less television is easy, but I work at a computer all day everyday to make a living.

Then there is the aspect of writing on a computer. Birkerts suggests that writing on a computer rather than on a typewriter or by hand causes sloppy writing–things are too easily rearranged, deleted, inserted. Typically, when I write, I do a first draft by hand in my writing notebook, then type it out on the computer. Sometimes I draft on my typewriter, but more often than not I revise on the computer again. It is easier–but is it better? That I’m not sure. I think about my undergraduate writing professor and his yellow legal pads with draft after draft of a single poem. “He works so slow!” I used to think (and maybe, also, “get with the times!”) but maybe there is some wisdom in his decision to write it all long-hand.

Anyways, those are just some of my thoughts as I’ve been reading through this book–its left me feeling ready for action but unsure of what action to take.

6 Comments

  1. I do the same with poems – I usually write all poems longhand first, and then convert it to a Word document later. I like being able to cross stuff out, and manipulate the page a bit more. With fiction, I definitely write it all in a word processor, though – maybe with the exception of a scene here or there that I write in my notebook and add to a Word document later – but most of it is done on the computer. It's an interesting thought – is there more intentionality when writing on paper? For me, I hesitate to say that there is more intentionality, because I love to cross words out and draw arrows to rearrange stanzas/lines, so the editing gets done on paper, too. But I do see how you could lose some of that with the easy option of deleting. It's an interesting idea for sure. Something to think about.

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  2. I do the same with poems – I usually write all poems longhand first, and then convert it to a Word document later. I like being able to cross stuff out, and manipulate the page a bit more. With fiction, I definitely write it all in a word processor, though – maybe with the exception of a scene here or there that I write in my notebook and add to a Word document later – but most of it is done on the computer. It's an interesting thought – is there more intentionality when writing on paper? For me, I hesitate to say that there is more intentionality, because I love to cross words out and draw arrows to rearrange stanzas/lines, so the editing gets done on paper, too. But I do see how you could lose some of that with the easy option of deleting. It's an interesting idea for sure. Something to think about.

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  3. I agree with you whole heartedly regarding those pesky ebooks.
    But, I have to also admit that I am tied irrevocably to the word processor. My brain is just too fast for my fingers. I feel like I might enjoy using a typewriter, if I owned a typewriter, but longhand only works for a certain period of time for me. Like Heather said, maybe a scene or two in a notebook, but it all ends up in the computer, anyway.

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  4. I agree with you whole heartedly regarding those pesky ebooks.
    But, I have to also admit that I am tied irrevocably to the word processor. My brain is just too fast for my fingers. I feel like I might enjoy using a typewriter, if I owned a typewriter, but longhand only works for a certain period of time for me. Like Heather said, maybe a scene or two in a notebook, but it all ends up in the computer, anyway.

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  5. Another thing is this guy wrote this book in 1994–nowadays pretty much all people our age grew up writing on the computer from the start, writing another way is foreign to us. I don't know if there is a Better or Best way to write…I guess whatever works~!

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  6. Another thing is this guy wrote this book in 1994–nowadays pretty much all people our age grew up writing on the computer from the start, writing another way is foreign to us. I don't know if there is a Better or Best way to write…I guess whatever works~!

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