Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction

Mairead Small Staid:

“I read books to read myself,” Sven Birkerts wrote in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts’s book, which turns twenty-five this year, is composed of fifteen essays on reading, the self, the convergence of the two, and the ways both are threatened by the encroachment of modern technology. As the culture around him underwent the sea change of the internet’s arrival, Birkerts feared that qualities long safeguarded and elevated by print were in danger of erosion: among them privacy, the valuation of individual consciousness, and an awareness of history—not merely the facts of it, but a sense of its continuity, of our place among the centuries and cosmos. “Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience,” he wrote. “It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.”

Writing in 1994, Birkerts worried that distractedness and surficiality would win out. The “duration state” we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives, both fictional and lived. The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness. For Birkerts, as for many a reader, the thought of such a loss devastates. So while he could imagine this bleak near-future, he (mostly) resisted the masochistic urge to envision it too concretely, focusing instead on the present, in which—for a little while longer, at least—he reads, and he writes. His collection, despite its title, resembles less an elegy for literature than an attempt to stave off its death: by writing eloquently about his own reading life and electronic resistance, Birkerts reminds us that such a life is worthwhile, desirable, and, most importantly, still possible. In the face of what we stand to lose, he privileges what we might yet gain.