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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