Reading Against Itself
The Limitations of Clarity

Deep Reading (On Sven Birkerts)

Sven Birkerts has been developing a critique of "electronic media" for quite a long time, publishing The Gutenberg Elegies in 1994, well before the rise of blogs, stand-alone news sites, and critical webzines, so his cyber skepticism is not to be dismissed as simply more defensive posturing by an endangered gatekeeper. His concern for "unhurried" reading is usually expressed in an equally unhurried analysis of the act of reading (specifically reading fiction), not as the high dudgeon of a book critic protesting his imminent loss of status.

This is especially true of a recent essay by Bikerts in The American Scholar, "Reading in a Digital Age." The essay is framed as yet another inquiry into the way the digital information "environment" is making serious reading harder to accomplish, but ultimately it is really a candid inquiry into his own reading habits and an attempt to generalize from his conclusions to a theory of sorts both about reading and about the nature of fiction. Much of this theory seems to me perceptive, and generally correct, but parts of it as well seem an overly roundabout way of describing our experience of fiction that would benefit from a consideration of John Dewey's own "experiential-phenomenological" analysis in Art as Experience. There is overlap between the accounts offered by Dewey and Birkerts, but finally Dewey's comes closer to doing full justice to the role of "imagination" in reading, both writer's and reader's.

Birkerts associates imagination with the mental state of "contemplation," which he in turn contrasts with "analytic thought." Contemplation is "intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself"; analytic thought "is transitive, is goal directed. . .a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation." Contemplation is, or should be, the preferred mode of reading fiction, by which "enhancement" and "deepening," end-states in themselves, are achieved. But Birkerts finds this "deepening" moving in just one direction: the purpose of fiction "is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself."

Birkerts's insistence that the reading of fiction leads to experience and not "explanation" is wholly persuasive and does seem to coincide with Dewey's contention that art is an "enhancement" of experience. However, while Dewey might accept "sensibility" as the name for the human receptivity to art, he would not characterize our response to art and literature as primarily an opportunity "to engage the mind," especially if this means a retreat into an "inwardness" that is itself the ultimately desired state, cut off from the projected space occupied by the work instigating the experience in the first place. A Deweyan representation of the reading experience (the experience of art in general) would balance the inwardness Birkerts evokes with an outwardness that also seeks satisfaction in the perception of form and style. If "contemplation" involves the heightened awareness both of the palpable qualities of the created work and of our own awareness of those qualities, then the term might accurately capture the nature of aesthetic experience, but I think Birkerts privileges the activity of "mind."

When Birkerts writes that fiction provides "an arena of liberation. . .where mind and imagination can freely combine," he is not describing an interaction between the reader's "sensibility" and the work as an act of imagination but is positing "mind" and "imagination" as faculties exercised by the reader. When a little later he allows that "I tend to view the author as on a continuum with his characters, their extension," it seems to me he is explicitly discounting the artistic shaping that is finally the role of "author." In merging the author and his characters, Birkerts is putting most value on fiction's ability to induce "empathy," which in his case means the opportunity to connect with another "mind": "It is the proximity to and belief in the other consciousness that matters, more than its source and location." It is presumably this proximity to the "other" as evoked in fiction that constitutes "imagination" for Birkerts, not the unencumbered immersion in aesthetic experience as a whole.

On the other hand, I do identify with Birkerts's account of the "residue" his reading experiences leave:

. . .the details of plot fall away first, and so rapidly that in a few months’ time I will only have the most general précis left. I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.

What does remain is "A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche." "Tonal memory" seems to me a good way of characterizing the lingering impression a strong work of fiction leaves, although it is a memory the work has indeed impressed upon the memory rather than the sort of mechanical effort of "recall" the recounting of plot entails. For myself, not only do I usually have trouble retrieving specific episodes from novels I have read more than a few months in the past, I often enough lose all but a general sense of the voice or behavior of the characters, in the case of minor characters sometimes forgetting their existence altogether. Yet I continue to feel a tangible connection to the "language world" I have encountered, which to me is the surest sign my experience of the text was worthwhile.

The storage model of reading thus threatens to reduce the reading experience to the acquisition of "information," which Birkerts rightly resists. But I would take Birkerts's invocation of the "language world" as the ultimate source of value in fiction even farther. Reading a work of literature should always imply the possibility, even the desirability, of re-reading. Suspension in the language-world rather than the collection of facts about the work is much more likely to encourage later re-reading, both because one wants to abide there again and because the work in its particulars hasn't already been thoroughly assimilated and duly packed away. I can read it again and still have a worthwhile literary experience. (Presumably Birkerts might think that re-reading would give him further insight into the author's "psyche" as well; I cannot accept this particular element of his theory of reading, as I cannot see how the created language-world that is the text could possibly reveal anything about the actual author's mental states, except through free-floating speculation irrelevant to the text itself, nor why I should care even if it could.)

Birkerts concludes by encapsulating his claim about "deep reading":

    Serious literary work has levels. The engaged reader takes in not only the narrative premise and the craft of its realization, but also the resonance—that which the author creates, deliberately, through her use of language. It is the secondary power of good writing, often the ulterior motive of the writing. The two levels operate on a lag, with the resonance accumulating behind the sense, building a linguistic density that is the verbal equivalent of an aftertaste, or the “finish.” The reader who reads without directed concentration, who skims, or even just steps hurriedly across the surface, is missing much of the real point of the work; he is gobbling his foie gras.

While there are still assumptions here that seem to me unwarranted—why must the core element of fiction be its "narrative premise," which would only re-introduce "plot" as a barrier between the reader and the "language world"—ultimately this is a credible description of what is involved in serious reading. Unfortunately, Birkerts seems motivated to offer this description mostly in order to bolster his conviction that this kind of reading is endangered by the transition to screen-reading. I am unconvinced, to say the least. If Birkerts were suggesting that deep reading is succumbing to the general human inclination to give in to distraction, to settle for what's easiest, he would perhaps be on firmer ground, although this weakness has always plagued us and can hardly have been induced by the presence of computers. But he clearly enough wants to insist there is something inherent in cyberspace and e-books that make them inimical to "serious literary work" and the reading it requires.

A generation or two from now, serious readers—and they will still be around—will look back at Birkerts's claims about reading on screens and find them deeply puzzling. They will find the notion that literary texts published on pieces of glued-together paper are somehow metaphysically superior to those published electronically difficult to comprehend. I find it hard to comprehend the idea now. I can understand continuing to find the printed book more convenient, or more comforting, but to maintain that serious, sustained reading can take place only when enabled by print-on-paper just isn't plausible. Birkerts is a trustworthy literary critic and a reliable authority on the pleasures of reading, but as a seer into the future of literature he will surely prove inadequate.


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