April 28, 2010


Daniel Hartley

Hi Mark, I just wrote a critique of Sven Birkerts' essay:

All the best in New York - I look forward to reading about it!

Dan Hartley

Diane Mutmansky

Wonderful to read Birkert's essay and know I am not the only one who can say "my favorite book" but then not remember many of the details. He writes so well about the forgetting process. And yes it still does become part of who you are and helps shape who you become. Thanks.


Reading and memory, the subject of Sven Birkerts' peice, is something I've often thought about, wondered like he has, why I can't retain more, talk more about what I've read. Not that anyone, even my wife, would want to hear it. It's more than age, I think, as Mr. Birkert suggested, it's a kind of crowding out of all the books that are stacked into your mind, so that only the most recent---in my case the wonderful "Summons to Memphis" recommended by Marisa Silver---that is real enough to describe, should someone ask. They don't, not at the cocktail parties I go to, they ask about golf, whether I've played lately, and then mention a charity event they've been to. At the Celebration of Reading, presided over by the George and Barbara Bush, the high point, for me at least, was that Sarah Palin had to cancel because of a trial, someone tried to hack into her computer, for which I was grateful.


I tend to be more of a plot-oriented person, so I will retain more memory of that than some others, but the point is generally valid, and not just in literature. This is true in movies too. Last night I watched LA Confidential for the first time in years, and I think it ws also the first time I really understood its plot. I think one takeaway from this phenomenon, that Birkerts does not mention is the importance of REREADING books you love, precisely so that you can appreciate everything wonderful that is in them, including plot.


Thank you for posting this. My experience as well. I say it all the time regarding a book that comes up in conversation or at the two book groups I take part in: "Oh yes yes, I loved that book." But I really don't remember it. But in the time of reading it, I loved it and wanted it to last. Before a book group, I have to read that book immediately before, maybe finishing it that very afternoon. If it is even a week before, I will have read 2-3 books and have a hard time holding all the details in memory.


Now that I've read Birkerts very long-winded and poorly focused essay, I have the following responses:

He's constantly conflating narrative/fiction/the novel, as though these were interchangeable things. But everyone (?) knows they aren't (narrative doesn't have to be fictive; fiction doesn't have to be a novel, etc). The "digital age" could be adversely affecting the novel, without also adversely affecting fiction as such or narrative as such.

Moreover, for all the reminiscing he does in the piece, his analysis is very ahistorical. The type of narrative fiction that he sees as central - the novel - only came into existence in the West in the 17th century. It didn't become central to our cultural experience until the 19th century. The novel conquered with the creation of a bourgeois reading public at that time, and reflects that classes interests and illusions.

The narrative conventions of the novel are entirely absent from most of what we would consider the canon on great literature. The Iliad is not a novel. The Song of Roland is not a novel. The Bible is not a novel. The Decameron is not a novel. And so forth. So argue that everything we treasure about narrative fiction lives or dies with the fortunes of the novel is just silly.

Because of this ahistoricism, Berkerts is unable to analyze that the triumph of the novel itself brought about exactly the kinds of deep, and to many negative, changes in how art and literature were experienced. The novel succeeded in privatizing these experiences in much the way the iPod has radically privatized the experience of listening to music. What before had been ritual and communal, suddenly became hermetically sealed off from the community of others. It reduced literature to a species of radical inwardness, which some would argue is a catastrophe we are only now recovering from. But Berkerts is blissfully free of any understanding of this. He writes as though the novel were always with us, and always defined our experience of literature. Until the evil internet came along.

Lastly, he systematically confuses the phenomenon of "the internet" with the digitization of reading and the reading experience. They are two very differnt things, even if they overlap to a certain extent.

In short - Sven, you're just a grumpy old man yelling back at CNN.


I read "Netherland" as an ode to cricket.


Birkerts' remarks read like a rather long-winded and humorless explication of similar remarks in Nicholson Baker's "U and I". But he's right on. And I love the guy for being such a passionate reader (and a fellow nostalgist of The Wooden Spoon bookstore in Ann Arbor).

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