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The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age Paperback – October 10, 1995

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Editorial Reviews Review

What hath the inexpensive personal computer, the portable cassette player, and the CD-ROM wrought? Are books as we know them dead? And does--or should--it matter if they are? Birkerts, a renowned critic, examines the practice of reading with an eye to what the future will bring.

From Publishers Weekly

In his jeremiad, literary critic Birkets predicts that the information superhighway will lead to an erosion of language and a diminishing of sustained critical thought.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1st edition (October 10, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0449910091
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449910092
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,126,875 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

68 of 71 people found the following review helpful By amazon3131 on October 24, 2004
Format: Paperback
I encountered this book as part of my sister's college courses. I loved it; she struggled with it, but eventually grasped the point (and got an A+ on her essay, if memory serves).

But I was looking through the essays and comments by other reviewers, and I wondered -- Did we read the same book?

I didn't see a technophobic don't-read-it-online argument; I found an intriguing series of comments on what happens to when readers encounter something alien, and what happens to a culture when what used to be "normal" is now "alien."

Were any of the rest of you forced to attempt Chaucer's Tales in the transliterated, but still semi-original Middle English? Did you find it difficult?

The literary difference between Chaucer and 1900 is approximately the same difference between 1800 and now. We've gained a lot -- you can have my Mac when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers -- but we've also lost some things that we used to take for granted.

For example, have any of you slaughtered an animal for meat, or even watched someone else do it? Have any of you used an outhouse every day of every year, because there wasn't an alternative? Have you experienced the fear that comes with the knowledge that any illness or injury, no matter how minor, might kill someone? Have you lived in a culture wherein a woman taking a walk at night, or traveling unaccompanied, was assumed to be having illicit sex? (Think about the woman who marries Proteus at the end of Shakespeare's _Two Gentleman from Verona_: Do you really think she would have agreed to marry him if she had any other choice?)

All of that was once normal. It's not any more. Our books have changed along with our culture.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 26, 1999
Format: Paperback
Birkerts has created both an insightful personal history and an intelligent defense of history and literature. It is perhaps telling that the reviews appearing from other readers are themselves literate and considered, even when criticizing. Clearly, his writing inspired intelligent responses from readers; this may be the highest tribute one could pay any author.
I was led to this book by booksellers of the "Wooden Spoon" type, i.e., proprietors of used-book stores who stubbornly insist on old-fashioned, or possibly historic, standards of both literature and salesmanship. (The Wooden Spoon remains a haven. I'm sure this would please the author.)
Those sympathetic to Birkerts (and who cannot feel at least some affinity for him and the world he is mourning?) will recognize the type of bookman he describes, a type to which he himself belongs: friendly, perhaps a bit curmudgeonly, and always willing to talk with a serious reader.
One aspect of reading which is mentioned but not explicitly discussed is the degree of human interaction which reading engenders. Contrary to the notion of the reclusive bookworm, most serious readers have a gregarious streak that shows itself in "deep" conversation. The loss of the ability to read deeply suggests a concurrent loss of the ability to interact deeply with other people. The very nature of his writing, and the responses herein, suggest a reason for hope. He cannot, after all, be alone in seeking a "deep" connection.
It is comforting to know that bastions of literature yet remain, in some few bookshops and in the minds of writers like Sven Birkerts.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 14, 1996
Format: Paperback
by Andrew Stauffer

University of Virginia

Sven Birkerts doesn't approve of what you're doing
right now. Reading (or writing) an on-line review of his
recent book, _The Gutenberg Elegies_, is like discussing
an exercise program over hot fudge sundaes: we are
participating in the burgeoning electronic culture that
Birkerts urges his readers to resist. He recommends we
turn off the computer, stop our superficial surfing
through web sites and TV channels, curl up somewhere with
a good book, and -- here's the hard part -- actually read
the thing.

Birkerts argues that reading books has become
difficult for us, precisely because of our saturation
with electronic communications media. Television began
the destruction of reading; the computer and its
electronic attendants have arrived to finish the job.
As Birkerts' argues compellingly, the decline of the
printed word means the tranformation fo the reading
experience, which involves the deep and deliberately slow
processes of imaginative thought. Such experience is
undone by our desire for increasingly rapid movement
across large arrays of text and images -- a desire both
inflamed and fulfilled by evolving systems of electronic

In _The Gutenberg Elegies_, Birkerts claims his place
in a long and noble line of embattled humanists who have
refused the seductions of the technological. According
to Plato, the Egyptian god who introduced writing as a
new technology praised its usefulness as an aid to memory
and wisdom. The king of Egypt, however, took a different
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