Gutenberg Elegies (1994); Odyssey (trans. 1991)

During our November 2008 meeting we discussed the following two books selected by David Gilmour:

Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies, Faber and Faber, 1994.

Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Bantam Classic, 1991.


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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2 Responses to Gutenberg Elegies (1994); Odyssey (trans. 1991)

  1. David Gilmour says:

    For our newly formed book club, I considered first a work on bibliophilia and the joys of reading, A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. Then, after reading about the 1960s “Richmond Lecture” of F.R. Leavis regarding C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, I thought how much controversy was abroad today about the new “literacy” of information technologies and the old literacy of serious literature and criticism. Are we facing another divergence of two cultures?

    The two readings I chose, Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies and Homer’s Odyssey, are both works written in transitional ages of cultural transformation: the ancient epic emerged out of the oral tradition at the advent of writing and reading; the modern treatise at the convergence of the typographic print era with that of the electronic information age. Unlike as they are in form and content, both deal with aspects of monumental change in ways information is communicated and received by the senses and mind. In my days as a librarian, I studied literacy and especially the social and cognitive effects of information media. At this 21st-century juncture of increased change toward the new technologic literacies, I felt I had the perfect combo for discussion. Of the ways social mores have changed in the electric/electronic era and of effects of changing information media on imagination and consciousness serious study has been growing since the mid-20th century (Harold Innis, Marshal McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, and Jack Goody). My hope was that Birkerts’ and Homer’s works would stimulate our book club to look backward through history at media effects (orality, manuscript and typographic media) and forward to the effects in the electronic media age we are experiencing. The Gutenberg Elegies covered some of the bibliophilia of Manguel’s book on reading and also argued with neo-Luddite passion against the lure of newfangled computer “literacies.”

    Another reason for adding Homer was that Birkerts himself and the hero Odysseus are both thoroughly imbued with the emotions of nostalgia. The heartfelt interests of the exile and the uprooted are well worth considering in an age such as ours; many older people feeling somewhat traumatized by the rate of flux, of global migration, of disbanding community, of dissociation.

    Concerned with fine traditional literature, mostly English literature, Birkerts focuses on the pleasures and virtues of reading books in the old, slow contemplative manner. Noticing the failure of the typographic artifact and its outmoded modernist literature to attract and hold readers, he expresses his concern about the new interfacing of the word. Superseding the book, computerized technologies are undoubtedly changing the workings of the mind, although at this early stage it is only possible to speculate. Birkerts doesn’t hold back. He feels the subjective imagination and certain interior (“soul”) matters are being expropriated by the computerized devices. In light of Birkerts’ ideas, the fictional, mythological Homeric poem serves as an entertainment, which might offer a variety of perspectives about what is lost when ancient classics, that informed much modern literature, are no longer read or understood. The latter, though a work of unusual literary and cultural elements, might present a practical illustration of reading, either quiet visual decoding or, if one should choose, vocal reading of the poem as it was intended originally for the ear. Taking the works separately or combined, for discussion’s sake there’s no end of thoughtful inquiries a group of intellectual readers can conjure up.

    Though writing had been in existence since the 3rd millennium B.C., the Odyssey emerged as early Greek poetic literature, first written down in phonetic alphabetic form in the late 8th century B.C. More so than the archaic Iliad, the Odyssey represents the age when human thought and consciousness were in transition from explanations of behavior as inspired by psychic intervention of external gods. During the age of orality, the Greek mind was exemplified by Odysseus’ personal intelligence, cunning and deceitfulness, for which he was much admired by wise Athena. He showed how to take responsibility for action as decision making through interiorized processes of thought and feeling. The hero Odysseus, emotionally driven to return home to his wife and son in Ithaca, gave psychological and literal meaning to the term nostalgia (Gk. nostos + algein: “to grieve for return home”). And yet, wily Odysseus, the man of many twists and turns (polytropos), was perhaps an early example of a multitasker, thinking and acting on different levels at the same time.

    In The Gutenberg Elegies (first published in1994 just before the Internet became commonly used) Birkerts has a two-fold aim: one is an inquiry into the nature of the meditative mind and its delight in reading print books, especially focusing on interpretive fiction of classic or high-brow literature. Autobiographical pieces explain a life cathected to print books and his addiction to studies of literature. The other aim is to question the decline of reading printed matter, the waning of insightful, culturally important fictional literature, such as affected critical minds of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the changing mentality as society interfaces with words through electronic devices.

    Birkerts, Latvian born, had suffered one phase of nostalgia in adapting to American culture. Now, as a reluctant migrant from the stable Gutenberg galaxy, he suffers another pang for the old renaissance ways, wishing to resist the headlong rush into malleable electronic cyberspace. He argues for, with many philosophical twists and turns, the importance of private, interiorized, deeply meditative reading as it empowers the imagination. This traditional literacy he contrasts with the experience of adapting oneself to hypertext and inter-relational computer programs that encourage the mind and fingers to shoot around in lateral directions to target packages of data. Sadly, though, he counter-argues rather unconvincingly as the determined refusenik, without any of the generosity of imagination he applied to writing in praise of reading. His critical faculties and his own imagination seem to fail the suffering nostalgic in regard the possibilities of new literacies. At present, little can be pinned down about injurious neurological change from adapting to computer dependency or about the social directions virtual experience will take people addicted to the keyboards, scanners, phones, cameras and screens. Nevertheless, Birkerts, in a state of alarm, sends up a flag signaling our need to pay attention to the effects of multitasking, of living and bonding with the new technologies that are transforming the customs and habits of civilization.

  2. David Gilmour says:

    Dear Readers,
    I hope this news will encourage dispirited readers who felt that the 21st century was the end of the Gutenberg epoch. Some positive news arrived about the “Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age” as Sven Birkerts subtitled his essays bemoaning the decline of reading practices. The report I read (“Fiction Reading Increases for Adults” By Motoko Rich, NYTimes, 1/11/09) in Boise’s Idaho Statesman (Jan. 12, 2009, Main section, p.9), offers some details from the NEA’s report “Reading on the Rise.” The NEA paper can be read in full in PDF file from the internet. Following is the brief Idaho newspaper piece by M. Rich:

    “After years of bemoaning the decline of a literary culture in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts says in a report that it now believes a quarter-century of precipitous decline in fiction reading has reversed.

    The report, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” being released Monday, is based on data from “The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” conducted by the United States Census Bureau in 2008. Among its chief findings is that for the first time since 1982, when the bureau began collecting such data, the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.

    The news comes as the publishing industry struggles with declining sales amid a generally difficult economy.

    The proportion of adults reading some kind of so-called literary work — just over half — is still not as high as it was in 1982 or 1992, and the proportion of adults reading poetry and drama continued to decline. Nevertheless the proportion of overall literary reading increased among virtually all age groups, ethnic and demographic categories since 2002. It increased most dramatically among 18-to-24-year-olds, who had previously shown the most significant declines.

    “There has been a measurable cultural change in society’s commitment to literary reading,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “In a cultural moment when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable.”

    Under Mr. Gioia’s leadership the endowment spearheaded “The Big Read,” a program in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest to encourage communities to champion the reading of particular books, like “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. The report is being released just over a week before Mr. Gioia steps down after six years as the endowment’s chairman.

    Four years ago the endowment released the report “Reading at Risk,” which showed that fewer than half of Americans over 18 read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. That survey, based on data gathered in 2002, provoked a debate among academics, publishers and others about why reading was declining. Some argued that it wasn’t, criticizing the study for too narrowly defining reading by focusing on the literary side, and for not explicitly including reading that occurred online.

    In each survey since 1982 the data did not differentiate between those who read several books a month and those who read only one poem. Nor did the surveys distinguish between those who read the complete works of Proust or Dickens and those who read one Nora Roberts novel or a single piece of fan fiction on the Internet.

    Mr. Gioia said that Internet reading was included in the 2008 data, although the phrasing of the central question had not changed since 1982. But he said he did not think that more reading online was the primary reason for the increase in literary reading rates overall.

    Instead he attributed the increase in literary reading to community-based programs like the “Big Read,” Oprah Winfrey’s book club, the huge popularity of book series like “Harry Potter” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight,” as well as the individual efforts of teachers, librarians, parents and civic leaders to create “a buzz around literature that’s getting people to read more in whatever medium.”

    David G.

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