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Readings Paperback – January 1, 1999

4 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1555972837 ISBN-10: 1555972837 Edition: First Edition

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Sven Birkerts got his start as an expert appraiser of such European imports as Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, and Witold Gombrowicz. Yet he soon expanded his scope to literature of all stripes, and turned out to be a particularly pungent critic of American fiction. His thoughts on individual writers were invariably eloquent and refreshingly cant-free. But Birkerts also had a gift for cultural trend-spotting: his superb deflation of Gordon Lish and his acolytes was the high point of his first collection, An Artificial Wilderness. More recently, however, he has mutated into something of a gloom-and-doom specialist. First came The Gutenberg Elegies, in which Birkerts defended the printed word against all electronic comers (i.e., CD-ROMS, audiobooks, and the Internet). Then he edited an anthology of essays by like-minded technophobes--although to be fair, at least a few participants confessed to a secret online addiction.

Now Birkerts has published Readings, which resembles a greatest-hits package but is heavily skewed toward the author's Chicken Little side. In the first essay, for example, he ponders the "millennial warp"--his sense "that our old understandings of time--and, therefore, of life itself--are in many ways useless." "The Idea of the Internet" is a eulogy to the solitary self, soon to be engulfed by the "massive electronic nervous system" of the Net. It's not that these aren't provocative ideas. The problem is that when the author diverts his attention from a particular text, his customarily lucid prose can turn to sociological fudge. The good news, however, is that Readings does contain a generous helping of vintage Birkerts. There are shrewd and enlightening pieces on Rilke, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Don DeLillo, as well as such deep-focus delights as "When Lightning Strikes." And in an essay on Seamus Heaney's sonnet sequence "Clearances," Birkerts puts his finger on one of the primary rewards of literature: "Reading the end of the poem, I feel as though some obstacle in my own life has been removed." Even better, he conveys why--and a critic who can so eloquently analyze his own sense of elation is one we'd better listen to. --James Marcus

From Library Journal

For the most part previously published in general periodicals, these short essays by the well-known, provocative, and sometimes eloquent critic of the information age is divided into three sections: comments on the qualities of self and the pace of life in the electronic era, examinations of the experience of reading in various contexts, and literary criticism of modern writers and poets. While effective, the essays in the first section don't go much beyond Birkerts's earlier work in The Gutenberg Elegies (LJ 1/95), and they lack the specificity and analytic depth of the work in an anthology such as Resisting the Virtual Life (City Lights, 1995). The other selections are engaging and well written, if nostalgic. As a whole, this collection may serve as an introduction to Birkerts's ideas and a defense of the humanist tradition.?Julia Burch, Cambridge, MA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; First Edition edition (January 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555972837
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555972837
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,048,194 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By jjdaley@well.com on March 4, 1999
Format: Paperback
In Sven Birkerts' latest series of essays, "Readings" he insists that we are forgetting how to read because of the deluge of information that we have to process in our modern everyday world. And he doesn't mean this figuratively. He believes that we are actually changing and adapting to new media at the expense of the immersive reading experience. And that the rate of change is increasing.
He notes that St. Agustine, in the third century was amazed at those who could read without moving their lips, suggesting that the internal processing of text was not an inherent human ability, but something that evolved within the last dozen centuries or so.
Birkerts, who doesn't use a comuter to write, thinks that we are now taking another step, evolving out of the age of literature into something new and, as of yet, not fully understood (but assumed to be bad). He makes a good argument, but it seems to me that there are lots of hungry and discerning readers still out there, and many of them don't move their lips when they read.
I agree with Birkerts that something is happening, but I'm not as pessimistic, I guess. (And maybe it's not the reading experience, but writing that electronica is negativly impacting, as this computer keyboard generated review would attest)
But read this book. It contains much more that it's central theme would suggest, on topics ranging from Seamus Heaney to Don Dillio. It is a very engaging, valuable and thought provoking book.
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4 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Trent Caldwell on March 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
I have to admit that "Gutenberg Elegies," Birkerts's previous book, was a real pleasure to read, even if I did not share his clearly pessimistic view of technology. "Elegies" is a fascinating book, extremely well crafted, thoroughly planned from start to finish, and (disturbingly?) thought-provoking. Motivated by this experience and several equally high-flying editorial pieces (in the Atlantic) I rushed to get "Readings." What a disappointment. Has it REALLY been written by the same person? "Readings" is a collection of essays which seem quite haphazardly thrown together for no apparent reason other than simply being available. I was surprised by the authoritarian, no-discussion-welcome tone of most pieces, rather than the well-substantiated-argument tone of essays I was expecting (and to which the author got me accustomed before). You will learn, to give one example, which is the most beautiful poem ever written (it is beautiful, if quite trivial), and then, this presumed beauty will be slowly murdered in a lengthy, over-the-top analysis which could well be titled "What NOT to do to a poem you claim to like." And, although in one of the essays Birkerts announces he is not very interested in being actively involved in politics, many essays seem very conservative in tone. Not that conservative is a bad thing. It is just not my kind of thing. I will admit I did not read ALL the essays (nor do I intend to) - I think I have read just enough to know I do not want to read more. I may have missed some well-hidden gems. Oh, well - now I will never know.
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2 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Eric on April 13, 2004
Format: Paperback
Buy this book to read literary criticism at its worst, or rather read a literary critic indulging himself.
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1 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
This book was inflicted on me by my college prof--ok, so I'll admit some of it was worth reading; Sven's got a bit of a point about technology taking over our lives and he writes quite eloquently about the joys of reading. Also, the last few essays about specific writers were somewhat enjoyable. But on the whole, it's stuff I've heard before in a more accessible and enjoyable fashion. Sometimes it led to some mildly interesting conversations, but basically, I feel it was a waste of my time. Sven needs to get a grip--technology isn't going away. Also, I had to chuckle when I read him boast about the fact that he is "in no sense online." Well, that might have been true when the essay was first published but his journal sure is online now! At any rate, if freaking out about technology taking over our lives and our society going to hell in a handbasket is your thing, you might like this book. I didn't.
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