Sven Birkerts on Reading in a Digital Age

Sven Birkerts has a worthwhile essay on what it means to be a reader today. Although. I don’t think he’s covering any new territory so much as adding some nuance to what are, at this point, well-worn arguments.

As to the “digital age” part, the piece basically comes down to this:

The problem we face in a culture saturated with vivid competing stimuli is that the first part of the transaction will be foreclosed by an inability to focus—the first step requires at least that the language be able to reach the reader, that the word sounds and rhythms come alive in the auditory imagination. But where the attention span is keyed to a different level and other kinds of stimulus, it may be that the original connection can’t be made. Or if made, made weakly. Or will prove incapable of being sustained. Imagination must be quickened and then it must be sustained—it must survive interruption and deflection. Formerly, I think, the natural progression of the work, the ongoing development and complication of the situation, if achieved skillfully, would be enough. But more and more comes the complaint, even from practiced readers, that it is hard to maintain attentive focus. The works have presumably not changed. What has changed is either the conditions of reading or something in the cognitive reflexes of the reader. Or both.

All of us now occupy an information space blazing with signals. We have had to evolve coping strategies. Not merely the ability to heed simultaneous cues from different directions, cues of different kinds, but also—this is important—to engage those cues more obliquely. When there is too much information, we graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed. We stare at a computer screen with its layered windows and orient ourselves with a necessarily fractured attention. It is not at all surprising that when we step away and try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text of a book we have trouble. It is not so easy to suspend the adaptation.

Frankly, I disagree. It is true that at different points in my life I have had greater and lesser abilities to focus on a novel and sink in to its world, but I’d say this this very weakly correlated with the amount of digital media surrounding me. For example, last year, when I lived in the United States and was subjected to the full panoply of digital distraction that my fine nation can level at me, I actually read more novels than when I lived in a little apartment in Mexico with no Internet–or much of anything else–to speak of.

I simply don’t believe that people aren’t sophisticated enough to figure out how to read amidst digital entertainment options, but are sophisticated enough to do so in the face of other impediments. Actually, I’d say that the abundance of digital ephemera would be a boon to reading; that is, after you’ve been fried all day on beeps and flashing lights, aren’t you chased into the arms of a good book, or some other equally “antiquated” experience? I am, for one.

Birkerts also raises the point of the relevance of fiction in an age of incredibly access to information. It’s a good point, but I can’t agree with his assertion that greater access to information renders great art and literature less relevant:

The reality O’Neill has so compellingly described, that of swooping access, is part of the futurama that is our present. The satellite capability stands for many other kinds of capabilities, for the whole new reach of information technology, which more than any transformation in recent decades has changed how we live and—in ways we can’t possibly measure—who we are. It questions the place of fiction, literature, art in general, in our time. Against such potency, one might ask, how can beauty—how can the self’s expressions—hold a plea? The very action that the author renders so finely poses an indirect threat to his livelihood. No, no—comes the objection. Isn’t the whole point that he has taken it over with his imagination, on behalf of the imagination? Yes, of course, and it is a striking seizure. But we should not be too complacent about the novelist’s superior reach. For these very things—all of the operations and abilities that we now claim—are encroaching on every flank. Yes, O’Neill can capture in beautiful sentences the sensation of a satellite eye homing in on its target, but the fact that such a power is available to the average user leaches from the overall power of the novel-as-genre. In giving us yet another instrument of access, the satellite eye reduces by some factor the operating power of imagination itself. The person who can make a transatlantic swoop will, in part for having that power, be less able, or less willing, or both, to read the labored sequences that comprise any written work of art. Not just his satellite ventures, but the sum of his Internet interactions, which are other aspects of our completely transformed information culture.

I suppose painting faced a similar crisis of relevance once photography became cheap and widespread, and it obviously compensated by moving toward abstraction. I’d say literature is now doing the same, as would be indicated by the increasingly lesser tolerance of “realist” fiction by people who take fiction seriously.

But even granted that fiction can compensate through abstraction, I find Birkerts’ premise unsupportable. If I’m reading Dubliners, I don’t care that I can look at Ireland through Google, or even that I can take a plane out there and be in Ireland. I want to read Ireland as Joyce writes it, because I will never be able to write like Joyce did, and thus reading about his Ireland is to interlock with another subjectivity that is surely worthy of my attention. The fact of being able to go to his Ireland steals nothing from the value of attempting to approach Joyce’s mind. If that’s something you truly care about doing in this world, then who the hell cares about Google Earth? Cameras are not human beings, and seeing the world as they see it can only do so much for you.

Birkerts’ ends the essay with some thoughts on the experience of reading–which to me seem not bound to any particular age–and they are of considerably more interest than the thoughts on reading in a digital age. Dan Green has a nice exploration of them. Here’s part of it:

I do identify with Birkerts’s account of the “residue” his reading experiences leave:

. . .the details of plot fall away first, and so rapidly that in a few months’ time I will only have the most general précis left. I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.

What does remain is “A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche.” “Tonal memory” seems to me a good way of characterizing the lingering impression a strong work of fiction leaves, although it is a memory the work has indeed impressed upon the memory rather than the sort of mechanical effort of “recall” the recounting of plot entails. For myself, not only do I usually have trouble retrieving specific episodes from novels I have read more than a few months in the past, I often enough lose all but a general sense of the voice or behavior of the characters, in the case of minor characters sometimes forgetting their existence altogether. Yet I continue to feel a tangible connection to the “language world” I have encountered, which to me is the surest sign my experience of the text was worthwhile.

The storage model of reading thus threatens to reduce the reading experience to the acquisition of “information,” which Birkerts rightly resists. But I would take Birkerts’s invocation of the “language world” as the ulimate source of value in fiction even farther. Reading a work of literature should always imply the possibility, even the desirability, of re-reading.

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As you state or suggest, all the information, news and non-fiction books in the world cannot compensate or measure up to the scope of reality as presented in good and great literature. Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad and countless other great books offer a view of the world that non-fiction leaves out, sometimes omitting its very core.

Sven has been writing this essay, over and over, for decades.

Dan: Word.

I find this iteration much fresher than many of the most recent ones.

But it’s probably not a question of immediate digital stimuli (U.S. vs. small Mexican flat), but a long-term change of the ways our brains cope. A recent study (like so many others) says that if under 2s watch television, their brains are re-wired (bad metaphor) to demand easier, faster, brighter stimuli…for life.

They had some absurd correlation, like 1 hour of TV = 10 percent more likely to have attention “problems.” (If it’s going to be the majority in a generation, clearly it will no longer be a “problem.”)

And yes, this is certainly a topic that obsesses Birkerts, but don’t we all have those topics that obsess us?

Marcia: I don’t buy that. When I was a kid I watched way more TV than anyone–hours and hours per day. Now I read more than anyone I know. David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen–both incredible writers and readers–have admitted to watching tons of TV.

True, TV rewires your brain, but so does everything else. Living rewires your brain. It’s not like it gets rewired once at 2 years of age and sticks like that forever.

I guess at root I think it’s absurd to elevate one form of distraction to such cultural importance vis a vis reading. There are so many other factors that could influence how much we read. If we all had a 5-hour per week shorter workweek, I bet we’d read more. If we all saw our gross income be cut by 20%, I bet we’d read less . . .

I’m not begrudging Birkerts his obsessions. What would a writer be without a few good obsessions? My issue is that his thinking hasn’t evolved much on this matter over the past few years that I’ve been reading him on it.

Scott you can’t simply use your own personal experience as a rebuttal. I could point to mine and say, in fact, digital media clearly does affect our ability to concentrate. It takes a herculean effort for me to do so. You’re only refuting that by pointing to your experience. In reality, the current science, as Marcia suggests, supports the idea that it does have a negative effect (whether you buy it or not). It’s not remotely a question of readers being “sophisticated” enough to overcome distractions. The distractions of the Internet are of a different order entirely than other kinds of distractions (in how they affect our brain). And the TV we watched so much of in our childhoods is much different than the ubiiquity of media children are confronted with today.

There is a problem with these recent studies though: no control group. It isn’t as if tests were done prior to television to measure the attention span of readers — there is no way to know whether there has been any change at all. It could be that there are only traits in people, some more common than others, and that the ability to focus is a less common trait (or one more easily eroded in some people).

That being said, I think that media such as television — which doesn’t demand engagement, on receptivity — does have a negative effect on some people; I just don’t think these studies prove it.

Richard: Uh, if Birkerts can argue from his own experiences about reading, then I sure as hell can argue from my own experiences about reading. I don’t recall Birkerts citing any study in the piece.

But if you want to be empirical, that’s fine. I’d love for you to show me the study that has demonstrated that electronic media reduces attention span significantly over people who grew up in prior generations, and that demonstrates that this is a permanent effect that translates into less engagement with longform texts.

Note that I didn’t refer to Birkerts’ essay at all. You used your personal experience to say you didn’t buy the results of a study cited by Marcia. That is what I was responding to.

Dan is right that there is the problem of no control group for those kinds of studies. But, frankly, there’s no control group for any such investigation into the effects of technological change, nor can there be (and, anyway, I’m personally leaning less on studies, per se, than to recent research in childhood development and brain science). Which is why we have such a hard time proving what is very likely true. Which is further why our position with respect to new and proliferating technologies should be more skeptical than it is, not blithely accepting.

When I read the bit about “tonal memory,” I remembered Ortega y Gasset’s more poetic take on that from “Notes on the Novel”: “The titles of certain books are like names of cities in which we used to live for a time. They at once bring back a climate, a peculiar smell of streets, a general type of people and a specific rhythm of life. Only then, if at all, some particular scene may come to mind.”

I only just came across Birkerts’ essay. I agree with some of the points you make, but I’ve written a fuller, slightly more historical and political critique of it here:

Dan Hartley


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

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