The Tonic of Limitation

Sven Birkerts says it's what we can't have that keeps us human.

In the late 1980s Sven Birkerts established himself as an essential reference for readers of literary fiction. In essays written for Harper’s, The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, and collected in the book American Energies, Birkerts rejuvenated the form of the novel and brought urgency to both reading and writing by affirming the novel’s organic relation to the hour of its creation—to our times.

Readings by Sven Birkerts Graywolf Press, $16

Birkerts’ writing took a more partisan tone in the 1990s with the rise of computers, the Internet, and the “digitized culture”—developments he believed were corrosive to a literate culture. Much of this writing, pulled together in The Gutenberg Elegies, was concerned with itemizing the disintegrating mechanics of the electronic age: How, exactly, it disrupted silence and polluted introspection with data; how it toppled the necessary hierarchies of sequence and duration (integral to the act of reading); and how it effectively rotted us free of our ennobling human distinctions. For the last few years, Birkerts seems to have fallen back from the contentious front lines, having made his case as long and as hard and probably as smart as it could be made.

In Readings, readers are given a chance to survey the best material from these phases in his critical enterprise—to sample him in a “best of” paperback, with a handful of previously unreleased essays thrown in to sweeten the deal. It’s in these new pieces, however, that Birkerts raises the ante and asserts that the very idea of the human is now threatened.

Readings is arranged, roughly, in reverse order. Birkerts’ earlier, durable appreciations of Rilke, Seamus Heaney, Robert Lowell, and Anne Tyler are supplemented by newer surveys of Elizabeth Bishop and Don DeLillo. Preceding them are the author’s broad, earnest studies in the reading life, treatments that might be called “ecologies of reading.”

In his latest essays, Birkerts explores the consequences of the aliterate arrangements of the electronic age. By ascending upward along the media chain, superseding photographs, images, sound recordings, and linear text, the computer has come to mediate our relation to the natural environment. Given that “virtual” dimensions are corruptions of the space and time in which we live, our sense of duration, for example, is likewise corrupted, and with it the valuable ideas of patience, restraint, and deferred gratification. This, Birkerts concludes, is how the notion of “being human” is threatened.

Birkerts’ chief complaint is that the texture of the obstacles we face are no longer upbuilding and admirable. The Internet presents obstacles aplenty; it can be maddeningly slow and disorientingly chaotic. But instead of the Internet bending to our need for sense and coherence, we simply abandon those needs entirely. Birkerts’ modest celebrations of distance and time become moral appreciations of separation and waiting, and the argument seems to be that the natural obstacles are the only ones that will keep us whole, sane, and reading. Without them, the definition of “the human” is deprived the bracing tonic of limitation, the thing that hardens the spirit to its proper state. *

Kurt Jensen is a Seattle writer unavoidably delayed in Philadelphia.