Guttenburg Elegies Essay, Research Paper
The Gutenberg Elegies
The Gutenberg Elegies is not only about the loss of the printed word, but of books, literature, reading, history, culture, language, sensibility, the past, community, faith, the self and the soul. Responsible for their unfortunate extinction is technology, or so Birkert says.
Birkerts is out to speak up for the act of reading, to stand by the printed book, and to defend the literary culture that books and reading created. Reading, the book, and literary culture are put in jeopardy, not only by electronic mass media, but also by the digitization and electronic manipulation of the written word and by its electronic transmission.
I would like to suggest two reasons why the book is off. First, his rehash of electronic media is painted with too broad of a brush. The differences between these media?s are ignored. When he discusses reading he specifically declares that he is not concerned with all written media, nor even just books, nor even literary works, but only literary fiction. When he considers electronic media he excludes nothing, throwing into the mix computers, fax machines, e-mail, books on tape, televisions, CD-ROM, camcorders, answering machines and so on. This is not the right way to do it. To fail to tell the difference between numerous kinds of electronic media, because they are all based on manipulating electrons is as fundamental a mistake as failing to differentiate between tax forms and novels, because they are both printed on paper.
As anyone knows who has experienced them both, broadcast media like radio and television are much different then point-to-point interactive media like computer-mediated-communication. Video, audio, and multimedia forms of electronic media are vastly different then the primarily text transmissions that constitute most of the traffic on the Internet. E-mail is nothing like television. Generalizing across all of these forms of media short-circuits the argument.
The second problem that undercuts Birkerts criticism of the electronic media is an imprecision in the critical terms involved in these issues: language, the written word, and technology. For example, Birkerts writes, “I speak as an unregenerate reader, one who still believes that language and not technology is the true evolutionary miracle.” (Page 6) While I do not see why there could not be more than one evolutionary miracle, that is not the point. The point is that, Birkerts is confused about what language is. Spoken language may be described as an evolutionary miracle; written language is a technology. At least that is how I see it. It is like the wheel it is a technology that is so present in our lives that it is almost always transparent.
The Gutenberg Elegies is an argument against forms of communication that mediate our relationship to the written word. However, the written word is itself a technological mediation of the highest order. When Birkerts talks about technology he seems to mean only increasingly sophisticated machinery. Acting on his convictions, he tells us that he produced the manuscript of this book on an IBM Selectric. (Page 28)
While Birkerts mourns the loss of the written word, others will be delighted in its coming alive with new forms, colors, shapes, and sounds that have been made possible by the wonders and magic of technology. I understand what he is saying about how people reading are getting less and less due to the growth of technology. But I think he should also realize that technology works and it will keep getting more advanced, not matter what he does to try to stop it. The growth of technology is helping a lot of things.