|The Alphabet Primer by Clive Hicks-Jenkins,|
showing part of the Griffin, John Barleycorn, and the Knight.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
GS: This line of argument was put best, at least by my lights, in Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies. Though the book is now twenty years old, developments since then have only confirmed that changes in the physical form of reading gradually, on a molecular level and scale and pace, do indeed alter our psychic metabolism. One of the great virtues of Birkerts' book is its evocation of the spiritual and imaginative possibilities of deep reading. The book is a phenomenology of deep reading, of the way that immersion in a great and demanding text, piece of music, or piece of visual art can activate deep and previously untouched capacities and allow connections to be made among our cultural neurons, which can only happen in relative stillness and isolation.
PG: In solitude.
GS: In solitude. That's his argument; and I'm persuaded. The second part of the argument is that stillness and solitude are just what life online makes increasingly difficult. Since The Gutenberg Elegies was published, Nicholas Carr has written The Shallows, which makes something of the same case, without Birkerts' literary flair but with a certain amount of reporting on recent developments in cognitive science.
The book in its physical form probably can't last forever. It's not part of my or Birkerts' hope or brief that it should. But deep reading, imaginative immersion: those things do need to last forever. The printed book can be lost and left behind, but the spiritual habitus Birkerts is describing can't, or mustn't, be left behind - it's the royal road to the very best that any individual can achieve. And it's at risk in our current mental ecology.