In "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age," Sven Birkerts raises questions that digitized libraries make ever more crucial in a world that has changed from moving type to the finely filamented electronic scrim. "The formerly stable system - the axis with writer at one end, editor, publisher, and bookseller in the middle, and reader at the other end - is slowly being bent into a pretzel," he says. "What the writer writes, how he writes and gets edited, printed, and sold, and then read - all of the old assumptions are under siege."
While Birkerts touches the commercial aspects of this transformation, he especially wants to know - and so should we all - how electronic communication will change not only the engagement between the reader and what's read, but the "feel" of our encounter with the written word in an electronic culture. His reflections compel us to think about the way the digitized world transforms our experience with fine literature.
On reading "Don Quixote," do we become the windmills that the errant knight attacks? Does the screen impose an obstacle for empathy as the windblown Cathy cries out for Heathcliff on the remote moors of "Wuthering Heights"? Would Virginia Woolf now ask for a computer of her own, or would she prefer penmanship?
How we read determines how we see ourselves in relation to the universe. When the scrolls of illuminated manuscripts painstakingly copied by the monks in the Middle Ages were updated to a flattened page and bound together in a black-and-white book, our perceptions changed profoundly. With historical hindsight we see how the centers of power of church and court were radically changed as the reading audience expanded independently, no longer needing mediators of religion and royalty.
"As the world hurtles on toward its mysterious rendezvous, the old act of slowly reading a serious book becomes an elegiac exercise," writes Birkerts. Unless, of course, you're on a holiday of the season, and can take the time to pick up a splendid old favorite and turn the pages at leisure. That might make for a Merry Christmas indeed, which is what I wish for my readers, one and all.
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