Booking Through Thursday: Why you Read


Booking Through Thursdays has a very interesting topic today: 
I've seen this quotation in several places lately. It’s from Sven Birkerts’ ‘The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age’:

“To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or one’s orientation toward it.”

To what extent does this describe you?

Well, nosy me just can't accept a quote without looking it up. I found the text of Birket's "The Gutenberg Elegies and read it.   I don't agree with the above statement after reading through entire thing.    I couldn't actually find the above quote, so perhaps someone can point me to it in the text.  

He posits what will happen if we eventually move to an all electronic medium.

1) Language erosion.   I see the erosion of our language everyday in emails and text messages passing over into common language.   When someone looks at me at say "O. M. G." or "L.O.L." in response to something I said or when I receive an email full of misspellings and bad grammar or short speak.

"Simple linguistic prefab is now the norm, while ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and wit are fast disappearing."

2) Flattening of historical perspective:  Books are disappearing from the libraries because certain parties didn't like the way they were presented.  We see instances in which history is being rewritten and to suit the electronic age, feed to us in small bites.   Rumors and gossip turn into truth.

"Once the materials of the past are unhoused from their pages, they will surely mean differently. The printed page is itself a link, at least along the imaginative continuum, and when that link is broken, the past can only start to recede. At the same time it will become a body of disjunct data available for retrieval and, in the hands of our canny dream merchants, a mythology."

3) The waning of the private self:   The nuclear family being replaced by virtual families and connections.  Communication between family members turns to texting one another at the dinner table versing conversing.   Watch two teenagers walking down the street.  Are they talking to one another.  No, they are on their cell phones talking to someone else or on the internet.  Watch the woman bike riding with her children.  Is she talking to them and giving them her full attention.  Nope, on the phone talking or browsing the internet.

"The doors and walls of our habitations matter less and less–the world sweeps through the wires as it needs to, or as we need it to. The monitor light is always blinking; we are always potentially on-line."

So what does any of this have to do with books?  The physical act of reading is active and engages our brains.  

"The order of print is linear, and is bound to logic by the imperatives of syntax. Syntax is the substructure of discourse, a mapping of the ways that the mind makes sense through language. Print communication requires the active engagement of the reader's attention, for reading is fundamentally an act of translation. Symbols are turned into their verbal referents and these are in turn interpreted. The print engagement is essentially private. While it does represent an act of communication, the contents pass from the privacy of the sender to the privacy of the receiver. Print also posits a time axis; the turning of pages, not to mention the vertical descent down the page, is a forward-moving succession, with earlier contents at every point serving as a ground for what follows. Moreover, the printed material is static–it is the reader, not the book, that moves forward. The physical arrangements of print are in accord with our traditional sense of history. Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained attention. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader's focus and comprehension"
Electronic media is passive - we are receiving, but not engaging. 

"The electronic order is in most ways opposite. Information and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness. The vast resources of the network are always there, potential, even if they do not impinge on the immediate communication. Electronic communication can be passive, as with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents, unless they are printed out (at which point they become part of the static order of print) are felt to be evanescent. They can be changed or deleted with the stroke of a key. With visual media (television, projected graphs, highlighted "bullets") impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed. The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative. The presentation structures the reception and, in time, the expectation about how information is organized.

Further, the visual and nonvisual technology in every way encourages in the user a heightened and ever-changing awareness of the present. It works against historical perception, which must depend on the inimical notions of logic and sequential succession. If the print medium exalts the word, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end" 

The experience of reading a physical book versus reading one electronically is totally different, I can testify to that.  I've never been able to really "read" a book on the internet.   While reading a story on the internet, I find myself reading faster, speeding through the text, scrolling to the end and not retaining what I read.   Not an enjoyable experience, plus you really can't cozy up with a laptop computer.    I have discovered the same thing since buying my Nook.   I've read a couple very interesting stories, but did I retain the story in my mind.  No. I discovered that I did not retain as much information about the story as I did when read a physical book.  I felt the need to read the actual book because I didn't enjoy the experience. I didn't get into the story.    Flat words on a screen just didn't engage my brain.  Yes, I could cozy up on the couch with the Nook and it has it's benefits however it is still a passive reading experience.  

Another reason why I enjoy the act of reading - Audio books:

"Reading, because we control it, is adaptable to our needs and rhythms. We are free to indulge our subjective associative impulse; the term I coin for this is deep reading: the slow and meditative possession of a book. We don't just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity. The printed page becomes a kind of wrought-iron fence we crawl through, returning, once we have wandered, to the very place we started. Deep listening to words is rarely an option. Our ear, and with it our whole imaginative apparatus, marches in lockstep to the speaker's baton.

When we read with our eyes, we hear the words in the theater of our auditory inwardness. The voice we conjure up is our own–it is the sound-print of the self. Bringing this voice to life via the book is one of the subtler aspects of the reading magic, but hearing a book in the voice of another amounts to a silencing of that self–it is an act of vocal tyranny. The listener is powerless against the taped voice, not at all in the position of my five-year-old daughter, who admonishes me continually, "Don't read it like that, Dad." With the audio book, everything–pace, timbre, inflection–is determined for the captive listener. The collaborative component is gone; one simply receives."

Some enjoy audio books and don't have any problem with them.   I can't listen to an audio book because I end up tuning it out.   My brain isn't actively engaged and my eyes are not focused on a page of words and  both start to wander.   But that is me - I'm a visual learner.

As to the above quote - reading is not feeding an insufficiency in one's life.  Reading entertains, enlightens, educates, expands your horizons, opens up your life to worlds you never could imagine.   To me reading is as necessary as breathing.

What do you think?


  1. I didn't agreed with this statement at all. Perhaps this is why he reads. My response was uhm tart.

    Here is mine

  2. Thanks for looking up the context, interesting stuff! I'm not a fan of reading on the computer either and I was hoping that the Nook would bring a similar experience as reading a book because I want one really bad.

    I often wonder about the future of language and the change of social interaction due to the constant exposure to technology. So aren't we helping to slow this progression by reading and writing? Here's mine:

  3. Thanks for creating a synopsis of the original text. It was enlightening.

    I like audiobooks on long drives when they are done well, like Jazz by Walter Dean Myers, but I agree that some people just can't stomach audiobooks or ebooks.

    I just like the act of handing a really good book to someone who I know will love it.

  4. Hey Robin,

    I clicked on the link and saw that it was just excerpts from 'Elegies,' which is a book of essays. It's very thought-provoking. It's on Amazon here:

    We all seem to have the same knee-jerk reaction to that word "insufficiency." But who really feels their life is totally sufficient? I love my life, but there are areas where I want to grow and where I lack something. It's definitely part of the reason I read.

    I like the way you said it -- it's "as necessary as breathing." Breathing fills my insufficient oxygen supply. Reading fills my insufficiency in the ways you list.

  5. I think in a way he's right--who doesn't want more romance or adventure or intellectual stimulation in their lives? Books provide that. I do think reading a book is like going on a journey and going to another place.

    I don't think reading on an electronic device is as dramatically different from reading an actual book as he makes it out to be, but I will say that while I have enjoyed eBooks, I would NOT want to read a chunkster in e format. Short books that don't require too much thinking are fine, but if I need to concentrate, I need to have the paper version.

    Very thought-provoking post, Robin!

  6. I read because I must!! Without books I'm not sure what would happen to my soul...probably shrivel up, wilt, and float away like a dust bunny!! I'm not opposed to ebooks or such but electronic mediums HAVE intruded on our daily lives to the point where people have stopped talking and instead TEXT!!

    I enjoyed and agreed with your thoughts Robin!

  7. this quote has got people thinking and discussing -- that's what books do!

    Here's my answer (short and sweet)

  8. Wow, you've done a great job with this post! I do agree, reading is as necessary as breathing.
    I dont like reading books on the internet either, I'd rather cozy up on my couch with a real book.


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