by Sven Birkerts
I’m not going to lie — throughout high school and college, I glazed over whenever we entered the Literary Criticism portion of the curriculum. And yes, I mean those full-fledged capital letters, the heavy-lifting sort of analysis for which concept-mad intellectuals stroke their chins. Thoughtful ruminations on the meaning of syllable choice and debating the merits of post-modernism? Well, everyone’s gotta have a passion, but to paraphrase a line from my own interests — It ain’t mine, babe.
So why then did I choose to read a weighty collection of essays that are primarily Literary Criticism? Perhaps I thought that, now in the practice of writing book reviews, I could gain some evaluation mojo, that maybe I could move beyond just talking about myself and throwing in a few plot points.
Pause here for a self-aware cough.
What I think caught my attention was Readings being described as a discussion of specific authors, but also “contemporary nostalgia” and “the future of the creative spirit.” Being the dino I am, I thought I’d find something that appealed to my own sense of truth and chronic history-musing. In some ways, I did, but Birkerts’ writing is not easy bedtime reading.
Divided into three sections, the essays are not arranged chronologically (though they date between 1986 and 1998), but with a theme. With titles like “The Millennial Warp” and “The Idea of the Internet,” the first section deals primarily with ‘the way things were’ versus all the rapid changes that came to our daily lives ten, fifteen years ago. It is subject matter that bleeds into the second section as well. While I’m sure these essays were valid and insightful in their time, as is the case with any technology commentary, now they feel a bit quaint.
I’m referring to the wholesale alteration — or deformation — of consciousness individual and collective by the media: television, radio, print and photojournalism, So thoroughly (and insidiously) has the metastasis taken place, so utterly saturated are we by the various emanations, that it is impossible to step to one side to see it for what it is. At best, we can try to realize the momentousness of the change.
Utterly saturated, eh? This essay was published in 1986, pre-Internet as we know it, and at the moment progress seemed to triple in speed. Quite frequently, I found myself thinking, “Oh, just you wait, buddy. Just you wait.”
Consider the unintended humor, just three pages later:
Andy Warhol’s pronouncement — that everyone, in the future, will be famous for fifteen minutes — is more prophetic than nonsensical. The fame won’t be doled out because of merit, however; it will be because the celebrity machine will soon have used up its celebrities and will start looking elsewhere: at you, at me. Start combing your hair!
I’m getting carried away now by apocalyptic fantasy, sure.
Nearly 25 years later, I don’t know what’s a more depressing apocalyptic sign — Tila Tequila or the random talking heads they prop up on cable news.
Still, even accounting for the time at which this was written, I’m not quite sure I fully buy into Birkerts’ Chicken Little fear for culture. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of bafflingly popular vacuities, but present media has its gems too. Just look to the onslaught of online literary, fashion and art magazines, look at television shows like The Wire and Mad Men. If I were to confine examples to the 80s and 90s, we would still have Creation Records, Twin Peaks and that soon-to-be revered David Foster Wallace. Tell me there’s a lot of noise out there, and I’ll agree with you, but don’t tell me it’s impossible to seek out what you enjoy. You are not a unique flower whose environment has perished forever — there are always creative people who feel the same way and are creating nonetheless.
I began to understand Birkerts more when he started speaking my language — that is, of the transcendental power of music. Reflecting upon his feelings while listening to R.L. Burnside, he expresses his amazement that the songs, which are so much within the history of blues, take him back to his own past:
This is life lived up to the limit of the skin and no further — the life of the heart, of wanting, getting, and mainly losing — and it is very much, for me, about back then. Odd that a small cassette can call up so many different kinds of memories and that it can so reliably stand for something.
The author and I operate on different creative planes. I don’t find it odd that music can be so transporting and so important in the larger sense of the world. I’m forever trying to articulate that feeling, but no, it’s not odd. Mysteriously impressive, I’d reckon.
Birkerts, rather, is forever trying to articulate the greater meaning of literature. He is a concept and choice sort of guy. He wants to know the intention of the work in question, and he wants to analyze its significance. It’s much less about character, and that’s where he loses me. I don’t care about Keats making use of the letter T in order to convey “the hard opacity of the actual trees.” I’d rather read about Keats himself, his life. I’d rather read about people. Nature-centric work has never done much for me, but that doesn’t speak of its quality. It’s a matter of personal taste.
However, when moving on to the altered state that is reading, I begin to understand again. Birkerts spends part of the second section talking about the act itself. He investigates what happens to us when we succumb to a book, and the attention literature requires. I never really felt the immersion he describes while reading his book, but I know it well:
The words make a voice, and the voice begins to sound in our auditory imaginations, and as we enter the book, we move from hearing the voice to listening to it. And to listen is to surrender self-thoughts, impinging awareness, and judgements; to listen is to admit a stance, a vantage, a world other than our own. Of course we do not succeed entirely.
Only when I was not reading before bed, when I was able to slow and have some quiet, did I succeed even marginally. I don’t believe this was Birkerts’ fault — I just wasn’t in the right mood for intellectual high intensity. Nick Hornby’s often made the argument that when reading books we aren’t fully enjoying, we shouldn’t feel the need to slog through because they are supposedly good for us. I thought a lot about the stack of books I plan to read next, about how I felt obligated to give this book a fair shake because it was sent to me as a review copy. I thought about how it shouldn’t kill me to read things I ignored in school, and then I thought about how far behind I am in the Cannonball Read Challenge.
On the back cover blurbs, Jonathan Franzen says, “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.”
I agree, but I guiltily admit I finished this book with the thought, “Oh, glad that’s done.” (Also, I wasn’t a big fan of A River Runs Through It or “The Trouble With Tripe,” so maybe that should’ve been my first clue this would be a wearisome read.)
Before I’m accused of being lazy or flippant, I must say that I enjoyed the third section of the book the most. In it, Birkerts discusses specific works like The Great Gatsby and gets into the biographies of Jack Kerouac, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, and Elizabeth Bishop. He talks about what their writing meant to him personally, not just what they meant in the grand scheme of literature. That I can appreciate more, even when he starts describing stanzas as “loamy.”
Of course this isn’t a bad book, and I’m sure there are plenty of people (MFA students, in particular), who would love to chin-stroke through it. I don’t fault anyone for getting off on brain-over-heart material, but it’s just not for me.
Full disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book after I requested it (among two others). I thank them for devoting a marketing write-off to my small blog, and I will continue to be fair regarding my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.