Resisting the resistance

Sven Birkerts has written a lovely essay, Resisting the Kindle, which questions the idea of e-books.  Birkerts wrote the fascinating Gutenberg Elegies and, while I disagree with most of what he says, I think his critiques are important.

Birkerts "[perceives] in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding", with the e-book reader exchanging access for context.  Birkerts sees literature as "deeply contextual and historicized", giving an example of what he means:

"Somebody referenced a poem by Wallace Stevens but couldn’t think of the line. Her neighbor said “Wait—” and proceeded to Blackberry (yes, a verb) the needed words. It took only seconds. Everyone bobbed and nodded—it was the best of all worlds.  My response was less sanguine. I imagined an info-culture of the near future composed entirely of free-floating items of information and expression, all awaiting their access call. I pictured us gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens … as the historical flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is the merely the sum total of his facts… Turning up a quote by tapping a keyboard is not the same as, say, going to Bartlett’s—it short-circuits all contact with the contextual order that books represent."

Derrida claimed "the end of the book is the beginning of literature".  Technology threatens a certain type of reading.  But it also ushers in new forms of literature, new forms of writing and understanding.  I imagine e-book readers will, in time, provide their own forms of association and context, without being bound by the physical constraints of books or libraries.  Imagine being able to follow Steven's life and work through every book published on him and not needing to wait for inter-library loans to check citations.  Birkerts' essay outlines some risks of electronic books, but doesn't make the case that they outweigh the possibilities and opportunities of escaping the book.

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