The Gutenberg Elegies

The TLDR: We should all be reading more fiction.

I first came across this book by Sven Birkerts via a review and mentioned it a few months back. I finally finished up reading it this past weekend and it’s a winner.

Originally published in 1996, some of the references to tech are obviously a bit dated, but Birkerts makes interesting and compelling observations that are still resoundingly relevant today. I had to remind myself writing that now, over 20 years later, seems startlingly prescient, at the time must have had people calling him reactionary or melodramatic.

Interesting as well were the new forward and afterword added with the 2006 edition. Birkerts is able to reflect on the state of things since his book’s initial publication 10 years before. Of pertinent note to me was the fact that he now has children and is trying to navigate the world of parenting within the context of radical shifts in society and culture – something I too continue to struggle with.

Here’s some sections that I highlighted for their particular resonance with me:

“The primary human relations—to space, time, nature, and to other people—have been subjected to a warping pressure that is something new under the sun.” (Referring to the advent of online technology and the Internet.)

“We have been stripped not only of familiar habits and ways, but of familiar points of moral and psychological reference. Looking out at our society, we see no real leaders, no larger figures of wisdom. Not a brave new world at all, but a fearful one.”

“[The thing that George taught me…] was that knowledge was less a means to an end than a matter of self-cultivation, a way of transforming the experience of the daily. To be curious, to study, to find out – this was the path to the world. Knowledge exposed connections, imparted significance to the incidental.”

“Reading argues for a larger conception of the meaningful, and its implicit injunction (seldom heeded even by readers) is that we change our lives, that we strive to live them in the light of meaning.”

“What reading does, ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that life is not a sequence of lived moments, but a destiny.”

“We do not learn so much from the novel itself, the lessons of its situations, as we do from having strayed free of our customary boundaries. On return, those boundaries seem more articulated, more our own; we understand their degree of permeability, and this is a vital kind of knowing.”

“The books that matter to me—and they are books of all descriptions—are those that galvanize something inside me. I read books to read myself.”

“Every true reader, then, is a writer and every true writer is a reader, and every person engaged in the project of self-awareness is the reader and writer of himself. Writer and reader: They are the recto and verso of language, which is itself the medium of our deeper awareness.”

In the humanities, knowledge is a means, yes, but it is a means less to instrumental application than to something more nebulous: understanding. […] The data—the facts, connections, the texts themselves—matter insofar as they help us to deepen and extend that narrative. In these disciplines, the process of study may be as vital to the understanding as are the materials studied.”

“Prophets and promoters have long promised that technology would set us free, creating vast quantities of leisure time; the fantasy has backfired. Instead we have swelling pockets of empty time; our lifestyles have us in harness, we are unable to move, spiritually gridlocked.”

“When we read with our eyes, we hear the words in the theater of our auditory awareness. The voice we conjure up is our own—it is the sound-print of the self.”

“I fall back on what is finally an unverifiable impression – that for all of our supposed riches, our culture feels impoverished; it lacks the kinds of animation that regular exposure to ideas and works of imagination supplies; and it is without an affirmative circulation of mental and spiritual energies.”

“Isn’t this the crux of it all? That the whole question of intellectual an artistic mattering has far less to do with the quantitative availability of ideas and expressions, and much more with their impact upon the individual and, through him, the society? That what matters is not the sound but the resonance of the sound?”

“Our lives are busy, distracted, multitracked, stressed. We may have altered our cognitive apparatus—speeding up, learning to deal with complex assaults of stimuli—in such a way that we can no longer take in the world as it was meant to be taken in. The price of retooling for the electronic millennium is a sacrifice of the incompatible aptitudes required for reading and meditative introspection. […] That we live all day among buttons and signals instead of tools and materials has not brought us appreciably closer to the interior. It has, if anything, made us less available to the kinds of self-inspection that enlightened living would demand.”

“There will be people who will never in their lives have the experience that was, until our time, the norm—who will never stand in isolated silence among trees and stones, out of shouting distance of any other person, with no communication implement, forced to confront the slow, grainy momentum of time passing.”

If you’ve read this far, kudos. I think I’ve gone well beyond a lot of people’s attention spans and/or patience at this point.

One of the ‘blurbs’ on the book cover of this edition from The New Yorker reads: “Birkerts on reading fiction is like M.F.K. Fisher on eating or Norman Maclean on fly casting. He makes you want to go do it.”

This was certainly the case with me. I have been reading a ton of non-fiction in the past year or two, under the auspices that it was ‘good for me’, often reading books that were an absolute chore to get through. Probably not so much a condemnation of their authors or the subject matter, but more that I was ‘punching above my weight’ trying to stretch my brain. Reading Birkerts on reading was so compelling that half way through his book, I abandoned it and read two works of fiction before returning to finish it just recently. This is not to say I will no longer be reading non-fiction, but Birkerts’ writing has brought me back round to the notion that I should be reading more fiction and literature – including poetry – than I have been.

The Overstory

Today’s Lunch Loop was a Library Run to return this book, The Overstory by Richard Powers. To be honest, I didn’t want to, I wanted to read it again. That doesn’t happen often. I wonder sometimes if one wants to re-read a book if it makes more sense to do it immediately or wait, and discover it again, only with a hint of familiarity, at a later time. My reading queue is currently backed up so this one will have to wait.

I can’t remember the last time a book affected me such as this one – fiction or otherwise. Powers is a master of the written word and the subject matter is of monumental weight, yet presented in a way not to be overbearing on the story. After finishing it I’m left feeling alternately exhilarated and helpless, still trying to process it all. I think the fact that this book and the discussion around it isn’t a bigger deal points to the fact that we’re still not ‘getting it’ as a species.

If this is on your to-read list, I suggest you bump it up several notches. If it wasn’t even on your radar, it should be – read it. If you’re saying, “meh, I don’t read so much anymore and the kinds of books I like to read aren’t really-“ stop. You probably need to read it the most.

Finding Patience on the Road

Route 8. Penniac, New Brunswick, Canada

I ‘met’ Bill Loundy on the internet in a weird convoluted way that I won’t bother going into. I found his website and then emailed him – because that’s what I do now. No social media – I just cold-email people. We’ve exchanged a bunch of long emails. This is my new philosophy. I’ll email anyone if the mood strikes – I really don’t care if they respond or not. It’s going fantastic.

He’s a twisted paradox – he is CEO of a smartphone app company, ReadUp, that he’s currently running while traveling around the United States in a camper he calls Sputnik with no fixed address and a flip-phone, only accessing the internet predominately at public libraries. We have some similar viewpoints and values – we are probably ‘kindred sprits’ – depending on your definition of the term. I have been enthralled with his tales from the road both out of envy and a sense of discovery. His recent post, ‘Slow and Steady Wins the Race’, did not fail to deliver the goods. A few nuggets:

Slow is like patience, gratitude, maybe even love. Slow is the mindset behind so much of what makes life better: intentionality, mindfulness, focus, calm. Anything that can be done can be done just a little bit slower, and that makes it better. Slow means more time. If you can drink a coffee in eight minutes instead of three, that’s five bonus coffee-drinking minutes. When time extends, awareness extends.

What I’m learning is that attention is the mack-daddy of all skills because it’s the path to all other skills. And the best part is that it only has two ingredients: time and focus.

Universally, I think that people are careless with their attention. They give it away without thinking – to other people and increasingly, tragically, to corporations and tech gadgets. To reclaim your attention for yourself is to reclaim yourself for yourself. Think about that.

That last one – bam.

Some of the best parts of Bill’s posts revolve around people he meets on the road.

I instantly hit it off with J. Born and raised on the Keweenaw Peninsula, he’s a 72-year-old with drifter vibes, but he never really drifted, geographically at least. He’s a bonafide free-thinker, who described himself, first and foremost, as a draft-dodger. He was a high school physics and English teacher (of course) who hated high school himself (also of course) but ended up finding his way to college (you get the point). I latch onto the fact that he doesn’t have a cell phone; to him, this fact is barely worth note. He looks like Jack Nicholson, but balder, with a pristine dome of shiny nothingness on the top of his head and long, grey hair cascading down the sides. He wears a Hawaiian shirt and bucket hat.

Bill says on his About page, that one of his two life-long goals is to write a novel. I look forward to that, but in the meantime his non-fiction blog posts are both compelling and fascinating. Check ’em out.

A Novel of Description and Attention

I haven’t read any Karl Ove Knausgaard, but Toril Moi’s critique of his multi-volume novel, My Struggle strikes a chord with me – particularly as it relates his work to a quest for presence, and ‘attention’. A question of one’s existence and an attempt to record or validate it. Might have to add My Struggle to the ‘to read’ list, though it seems like a behemoth.

Nothing is more ordinary than existence—than being there; nothing is easier to miss. This is the heart of the project of My Struggle: all these thousands of pages are attempts to pay attention. They arise from the realization of how easy it is to miss the adventure of one’s own existence, to live one’s life without noticing, without paying attention to that one thing: that I was there. But they also arise from the realization that we will inevitably miss much of that adventure, that our only hope is to recreate the moments of existence from memory. 

My Struggle is one man’s attempt to tell us how it is to be here, now. To show us existence as an ordinary phenomenon. But it is also an attempt to record his own existence. The book tells us that he, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was here. That he existed. That he struggled to be present in the world. This is why description is the key formal device in My Struggle. Description is precisely the literary form which unites the voice of the subject (of the narrator or writer) with his or her interest in the object of the description. Uniting the utterly concrete and precise with the question of existence, the description we just looked at achieves the “inexhaustible precision” which is Knausgaard’s aesthetic ideal.