Two writers assess the electronic era in fiction and nonfiction.
Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age by Sven Birkerts. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, $16.00 paperback original (272 pages). Cover art by Gerry Bergstein; cover design by Kimberly Glyder.
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
. . . the system of selection of information for the screen of consciousness is importantly related to ‘purpose,’ ‘attention,’ and similar phenomena.
—Gregory Bateson, “Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind
Serendipity occasionally tosses books together on a reader’s platter, thus multiplying the impact they might have had if encountered separately. If you like to chew on ideas, consuming books in combo can become an art as subtle as the pairing of food and wine.
Two titles from the year past are polar opposites in many ways, yet explore the same underlying idea: What have we jettisoned in our transition to the electronic era? One publication is a collection by an established older essayist on the East Coast and the other is a debut novel by a young emerging writer in the Rockies. Both authors edit literary journals. Each book in its own way addresses the digital conversion of our lives and the consequences of that progress. In their explorations of the Internet Age, both authors establish what has disappeared and then illuminate the ramifications.
Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI, turns a searchlight on technology’s threat to creativity in his collection of seventeen essays (all previously published individually in a variety of journals). The titles in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age are intriguing. A sample: “You Are What You Click,” “The Hive Life,” “The Room and the Elephant,” “Notebook: Reading in a Digital Age,” “Idleness,” “Bolaño Summer: A Reading Journal,” and “The Still Point.”
Birkerts examines what has occurred in the twenty-two years since he wrote The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.
He pitches questions and then marshals quotes from well-known writers to augment his answers, sometimes agreeing with their points of view and sometimes not. As Birkerts converses with their ideas, he presents his own stance while at the same time enlisting the reader’s attention to consider the situation along with him. In this trifecta of discourse arises a wide range of names, such as Abraham Maslow, John Cage, Milan Kundera, Simone Weil, Max Frisch, Bob Stein, Marshall MacLuhan, Jaron Lanier, Michael Aggar, E.M. Forrester, David Lockhead, Rainier Maria Rilke, Edwin Bustillos, Nicholas Carr, Clay Shirkey, John Keats, Paul Cézanne, Marcel Duchamp, Walker Percy, Nicholson Baker, Jorge Luis Borges, Kevin Kelly, Michael Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Rebecca Solnit, and Seamus Heany.
Sven Birkerts inspects the electronic transformation process itself, looking for what has become different. For every modification, he focuses not so much on the new item or procedure, but rather on what it’s replaced. That quest remains his concern: Identifying what has been supplanted. Birkerts describes electronic droplets of data cascading into “an enveloping environment.”
Have we actually been narcotized to the point of dysfunction by too much information (TMI) though? Birkerts brings in neuropsychology and social hiving as he pits our increasingly collectivized existence against the solitude required for contemplative reading. He broods about the costs of multitasking, worrying: When a society’s attention becomes scattered and humans begin to lose the ability to become deeply engaged in reading novels, how does creativity adapt? How will our current trajectory affect art in all its forms as our neural pathways are altered and new abilities supersede old ones?
It took me a long time to finish this book, because the author offers vital ideas desperately in need of pondering. Changing the Subject is a far cry from being dry and dull, however, as Birkerts exerts a quiet wit in certain turns of phrase, such as “the whiplash of obsolescence.”He considers the effect on the overall gestalt of removing one property from the whole. Curious, he’ll play with the question: What have GPS systems eliminated from travel? Hmm, well, certainly getting lost, for one thing. Instead of stopping there though, Birkerts speculates on the implications of that elimination—on what has been given up to assure our perpetual pinpointability on this planet. Could it be the capacity to move into the unknown or encounter the unforeseen…in other words, an adventure? He muses about cell phones and the “expectation of reachability” they’ve placed on us. The “primal solitude” one gives up to carry such a wireless device kept him from owning a cell phone at all—until quite recently.
Birkerts sees cloud computing casting a big shadow on Abraham Maslow’s idea of self-actualization as society moves from the individual to the team. If tangible objects are encoded and live in a cloud, his intuition warns him about the price of removing “physical markers of culture from our collective midst.” He discusses with eloquent passion what record stores and bookstores represent in our lives beyond the mere items they sell. Then he spends an entire lovely chapter on “reading,” concluding that imagination—the ability to visualize in the mind’s eye—is under dire threat. If we frame the old order as obsolete, needing it to move out of the way for the new, have we weighed the consequences?
The Internet as “a tool for the harvest of information” does not favor the slow work of contemplation necessary for the imaginings of our thoughts to flourish, Birkerts believes, predicting creativity will suffer at that crossroads. He calls the novel “a meaning-bearing device,” one that’s “an antidote to the Internet” because it’s a field for thinking. Through the deeper nature of fiction, a novel carries a reader into “a fully imagined otherness,” he states.
To move from the essays of Sven Birkerts, then, to the novel of Lindsey Drager is akin to thoroughly enjoying a hearty entrée and then sighing in cozy comfort at the sight of a chocolate truffle sitting next to the brandy snifter of Cognac. The Sorrow Proper is a fine finish on the palette, similar to the ideas sautéed by Birkerts but prepared for after dinner with a different recipe—that of fiction.
Drager stirs two main storylines together in her novel: (1) the lives of five older librarians facing the closure of their public library amidst the digitization of books and (2) the lives of a photographer removing his exhibit from that library and a deaf mathematician he meets there while doing so. The parents of a young girl who died in front of the library make several appearances as well, along with a bartender who recurs as a minor character.
In an elegantly parsimonious display of precise prose, Drager dissects the impending End of Print through the conversations of her small band of older librarians who meet daily after work at a nearby bar to consider their future. Her characters discuss their functions since the rise of the computer, determined to find meaning in a life that cares for books.
Transposed against this tableau is a photographer removing his pictures from the library’s walls while a deaf mathematician watches.
They become lovers. Their individual professions add philosophical depth to the evolving story. The photographer thinks about what develops in the dark. The deaf mathematician deliberates what the photographer does, taking into account all that he has recorded on film—and all that he has not. She pushes the significance of a “train of thought” as far as the tracks will go.
Death looms as a metaphorical cloud in this novel. Like Birkerts in his essays, Drager searches for what is no longer there—that which has been left out. The mathematician thinks about all the times we die before our actual deaths. The librarians start to view their library as a grave. The photographer realizes there are some worlds in which he and the mathematician have never met. Deftly Drager enlarges her story with the Many Worlds theory of quantum physics: Do our lives follow a singular, linear path?The librarians hash over what takes place during the act of reading a book. Meanwhile, the deaf mathematician asks her lover the thesis of photography. Later, he wonders how to quantify loss. She tells him math is a language. The librarians, too, discuss language and what the word “library” denotes in the Electronic Age. Everything echoes. The ending is poignant.
Reading Birkerts and Drager together is a powerful experience, as the two books chorus related thoughts from parallel universes. It’s as if Dutch artist M.C. Escher had created a transformation print of books while they passed from one state to another—page becoming screen. Spellbound by the protuberant images, a viewer might blink and suddenly notice receding regions—all at once paying delayed attention to the in-between spaces, belatedly comprehending with escalating chagrin everything that was abandoned during the conversion, ultimately understanding all that once was.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. She is a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, and has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.