“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.
A quarter of a century later, did he—did we—manage to salvage the wreck? Or have Birkerts’s worst fears come to pass? It’s hard to tell from the numbers. More independent bookstores are opening than closing, and sales of print books are up—but authors’ earnings are down. Fewer Americans read for pleasure than they once did. A major house’s editor-driven imprint was shuttered recently, while the serialized storytelling app Wattpad announced its intention to publish books chosen by algorithms, foregoing the need for editors altogether. Some of the changes Birkerts saw on the horizon—the invention of e-books, for one, and the possibilities of hypertext—have turned out to be less consequential than anticipated, but others have proven dire; the easy, addictive distractions of the screen swallow our hours whole.
“time of the self… deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it.” The gift of reading, the gift of any encounter with art, is that this time spent doesn’t leave me when I lift my eyes from the book in my lap: it lingers, for a minute or a day. “[S]omething more than definitional slackness allows me to tell a friend that I’m reading The Good Soldier as we walk down the street together,” Birkerts writes. “In some ways I am reading the novel as I walk, or nap, or drive to the store for milk.”