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Sven Birkerts
Published: Mon Jul 30 2018
Art: Andrea Chung
The Progress of Reading

In the last while I’ve come to see that our way of reading conforms quite closely to our lives, changing as we change, and showing how our inner lives and priorities evolve over time. I say “our, ” but I should not presume—this is how it’s been for me.

Reading has been my center since childhood—reading, and then the writing that has been its natural outgrowth. My earliest reading was absolute. When I started in on certain books, I could feel everything around me fading as the ulterior world took on definition. It was like watching an image in the photographer’s developing tray. My imaginative projection would never be so strong again, though of course I didn’t know this.

As I grew into my teens, my reading naturally became more directed, less driven by these all-powerful identifications, though they still happened on occasion. There were now the books to be read for courses, but also the other, more personal ones— books that offered the compelling scenarios of unease and dislocation that somehow echoed me back to myself. A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye…And then, before long, there came the books that helped create the fantasies of the life I would lead: The Tropic of Cancer, The Alexandria Quartet, On the Road…As Kerouac’s Sal Paradise proclaimed: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…”

When that romantically grandiose phase of reading eased off, a different voraciousness took over. I graduated college and began what would be a decade or more of working in bookstores. When people sometimes ask me why I didn’t go on to get a Master’s degree, I tell them that bookstores were my masters. It’s almost impossible to work in a good bookstore and not catch the contagion. And I was lucky enough to start in at the very first Borders in Ann Arbor, one of the best.

Everything seemed to happen at once at this time. I was starting to write short stories, and at the same time trying to read most every book I shelved. Taking advantage of my employee discount, I went home every week with a bag of things I had to read. My syllabus was improvisatory—I followed the line of chance, one reference sending me here, another there. I wanted to know everything. I would make lists and draw elaborate charts showing how various writers were connected: Garcia-Marquez, Claude Levi-Strauss, Saint-Exupery—and those are just the ones with hyphens.

In the abbreviated version of my life, this decade-long phase shaded naturally into the next, which featured another version of omnivorousness. I began reviewing books. This was back when there were print outlets everywhere, and with some persistence and follow-through I eventually had all the reviewing assignments I could hope for. In the pre-Internet world—my pre-Internet world—reviewing often meant a good deal of prowling for references and quotes in books related to the one under consideration.

This reading phase—and now I’m really telescoping—went on until I was about fifty. I read and reviewed, and eventually began writing longer, more reflective essays on the books that were important to me. For me this was the richest engagement—lingering, following thematic paths, taking apart key passages as I tried to get to the beating heart of a favorite book. Virginia Woolf, Shirley Hazzard, Nabokov, James…

Things changed again as I took up teaching and, later, editing AGNI. Now I had a steady flow of student papers to study and grade, and submissions to read. There was also my late arrival in front of the digital screen, with its scrolling text and multiple hyperlinks, not to mention the add-on distractions. The beam of attention began to fracture. The reading life, that vale of soul-making, could not but register the change. The full-on plunge into alternate worlds was becoming less and less frequent. And also more taxing. I felt it. The will to imaginative projection was not as strong as it had been, and it was diminishing steadily.

I tried to blame the Internet culture, its way of deforming old patterns, causing distraction and compromising attention. But there was something else, too. As I got older, I found myself with less and less desire to gain entry into those other places that novels offer. I’d entered so many already. I would say to myself, “Why take up with yet another character when my own life feels so interesting?” My father’s words almost exactly when I asked him years ago why he did not read.

I see this now as another change of consciousness, one very much suited to this latest phase of life. “There is too much to read” has become, to take Saul Bellow’s book title: “There is simply too much to think about.”

I’m not saying that I don’t read—I do. But differently. It’s not the old Seven-League-Boots style of reading, impelled by some obscure desire for mastery. My reading now marks a change of scale and, correspondingly, ambition. What I want in this stage is, quite simply, to work through my experience and figure my life out. I look to get myself back to the writers I remember as having some genuine wisdom. I no longer read quickly or with the wide-angle lens. Instead, it’s like I’m bent over a loupe—studying passages, reading sentences slowly to get their deeper yield. I’m narrowing the aperture, looking for my own version of Borges’ Aleph, what he fancied as one point in space that miraculously contains all others. Except the point I seek out is more about time than space—a compression of the life I’ve lived from its very start to the present.

Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).

He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2017)

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