The surest defense against Evil is extreme individuality, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. —Joseph Brodsky
The internet discussion goes on and on, at least in my head. So many angles to it. The one that interests me now has to do with generations, with the formation of outlooks and sensibilities. The internet changed everything, no question. But there are adults who don’t really know this—they lack the terms of comparison. Others, a bit older, who caught the fading days of analog, are aware of a then and a now. Still others, like me, grew up with rotary phones, telegraph offices, stick shifts, and checkbooks. I still can’t come to terms with all that has happened in a few short decades. I do what I can to adapt, both practically and in terms of inner orientation, but my upbringing and personal inclinations have turned me into a watcher.
I go through life with a bifocal awareness—I have no choice. I study the generational strata and marvel at how the different worldviews are simultaneously present and interacting—often in one family and often to comic effect. I contemplate many things through my now/then lens, including, and especially, the literary culture: writing, reading, and the changing ethos, which every now and then reaches a fulcrum moment when a new atmosphere mysteriously ousts what came before.
This culture is my organizing pretext here. I think of it as comprising all that pertains to the writing, reading, publishing, criticism, and discussion of works of a certain ambition. By which I mean—in opposition to books as entertainment—books concerned with values and aware of tradition, whether they follow that tradition or upend it. This culture is essentially inward-looking. It exists in words. As language consolidates thought, so these expressions consolidate language into meaningful expression.
Our several adult generations, with different worldviews and cultural sensibilities, naturally regard literary matters through their biases. What else to call them? Biases are the views formed through experience. Where there is no established and agreed-upon truth, there will always be different leanings and competing claims.
Generalizing, the basic biases map to three divisions of outlook. First, the analog babies, who grew up with all that has since vanished or been revamped. They may embrace or deplore but always do so with reference to the world as it was.
Then come the straddlers—those who lived through the first big transitions. These happened at warp speed, for years obeying Moore’s Law, which held that the processing power of the computer chip would double roughly every two years. The changes as they came felt vertical, overpowering, and offered almost no chance to absorb one before the next came crowding up behind it.
Witnessing the arrival of a whole new world, the straddlers responded variously—looking over their shoulders, peering into the future and doing so mainly in a spirit of optimism, trusting the possibilities of technology even as they felt implicated in the evolution.
Finally, we find those born into a world already significantly digitized, who navigate with ease the electronic labyrinth of sites and apps, purchase what they need with a tap of a card, and communicate with each other through myriad ever-evolving channels. These people, many of them identifying as members of Gen Z, accept as a given the speed of transactions; they move readily between platforms and fluidly between categories of every sort, and seem to be able to subdivide their attention, an ability that many analog babies cannot fathom.
These differences are a key psychological factor in what I think of as “the state of things,” and are nearly as important as the various impacts wrought by digital technology over the last few decades.
The computer-driven transformations include, in no special order, the steady withering away of newspapers and the eclipse of long-form print journalism and criticism; the arrival of mega-outlets like Amazon and other victors in the land grab that was online commerce. That change came swiftly. Much of the book business went online, leaving brick-and-mortar stores besieged like so many Alamos, fighting to survive by way of innovation and outreach. Happily many did.
This period also saw the migration of many literary journals to the internet, and the emergence there of book-related sites, blogs, and communities. With this the mentality of the literary world changed. What arose was a thoroughly balkanized landscape, with affinity-based clusters replacing the old sprawl—a host of boutique-y niche formats where fans of the experimental could go to one place, connoisseurs of minimalism another, feminist readers still another . . .
I think of these changes in terms of a motion study, where for years and decades—it felt permanent—there was a loose common center that was preserved by print media, by an active criticism and review culture, by brick-and-mortar bookstores, and by an array of highly publicized awards events, which together upheld the idea of a kind of canonic meritocracy.
The fragmentation enabled by screen technology created a vast array of access points and the fine tuning of an enormous menu. The scale of availability—mind-boggling in itself—was magnified and complicated by the power of the link. There have always been rabbit holes, of course, but never have they been so accessible. It was the era of the blinking cursor, and a new anxiety was born—the anxiety of being left behind, a version of what is now known as FOMO. But even more, it was the era of exultant proselytizing, and nothing could check the momentum.
I was there for those first transitions. I’d worked for many years as a bookseller and I watched as the trade moved into crisis mode. The changes could be seen almost daily—the perceptible loss of store traffic, the shift to e-content for Kindles and other devices. I worried of course—as did most writers. Our old MO was changing. For all its touted glories, online book culture felt to many like a swamp, difficult to navigate and lacking clear boundaries.
As a book reviewer, I registered the effects again somewhat later, this time on my livelihood. Book sections at newspapers were discontinued, assignments dwindled, word counts were slashed—the bank balance told the story. Long-form criticism suffered in much the same way. As outlets dried up, critics found fewer places to publish and longer queues at the transom.
The biggest shift was, for me, psychological. Whatever commons there had been was distributed across the vast acreage of the internet. It happened very quickly. For years, Esquire featured in its Summer Reading Issue a must-study foldout called “The Red Hot Center,” where agents, critics, writers, and publishers were ranked in a complicated graphic. There was that assumed—yes, also presumed—idea of a center. Then it disappeared. I felt my sense of presence in the literary culture start to grow dim. Numbers and clicks did not give me the sense of a scene. I thought of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, her famous lament: “It’s the pictures that got small.”
Yet all these years later, literary life goes on. Online culture is flourishing, print publishers are publishing, and graduate writing programs are going strong. Things are the same, everything’s different—who will decide? Consider the hothouse burgeoning of ChatGPT. The algorithm generates acceptable prose and is by far the fastest-growing platform, outpacing even TikTok and Twitter in speed of adoptions. This may not put direct pressure on the kind of writing I’m talking about, but every such innovation has subliminal impacts. The mere idea that software can compete in the arena of sense-making changes our notion of what writing is and can be.
The status and health of the literary are relative propositions, and its current valuation depends on who you ask. What’s clear is that with complete decentering, the game changes. The world turns out to be everything that is the case, and we find ourselves moving among a vast plurality of affinities—sects, tribes, separate duchies. It all feels like a mosaic in perpetual agitation. There is no Archimedean place to stand. Formerly there was the illusion of such.
That a consensus definition of literary is not to be found itself signifies. When criticism was healthy, the issue was at least debated. The university was there to certify the seriousness of the undertaking. Before the great switch, literary study was thriving. Now the public voice of the critic is hard to hear, and the prestige drop of the liberal arts—where STEM majors have shouldered the humanities aside—has left the question of the literary hanging, maybe even rendered it irrelevant. With no public consensus, the literary becomes a matter for the individual. To put it simply, what is reading?
There are as many ways—and reasons—to read as there are people doing it. What reading and writing have in common is that they work with thoughts and images essentially invisible to the outside onlooker, though their impact can exert all kinds of material influence. The word entering the world always represents a mysterious joinery.
Lately I’ve been feeling more intensely the reverberation of the outer state of things—the world—and I think about things literary in the light of what I regard as a deep-level shift. Here I set aside in brackets the immediate, defining issues—the climate crisis, the pandemic, the economy, and global unrest. My focus—more general but no less pressing—is on the way that our highly interconnected, capital-driven society continues to build itself around digitized systems. In these systems, people doing jobs—workers—are increasingly seen as “product,” as extractable resources. Integrated networks cannot function efficiently otherwise.
In so many areas, the economy no longer offers non-digital options. Most people see little choice and accede to the way of things, and why not? The systemization doesn’t seem pernicious. Vendors of services sell “easier” and “faster” and suggest that they steadily trawl our information only to serve us in ever more “personalized” ways. Notifications, automatic payments, offers of every kind of app and membership . . . The business culture that once sold the imperative of keeping up with the Joneses now actively prods us to stay up to speed, to not miss out. Commercially driven brainwashing is still brainwashing.
If we’re to hold on to our integral selves, our individual subjectivity, we need to counter this encroachment on our psyches. Its momentum will likely not be stemmed, but we can neutralize it for ourselves, oppose its effects, by establishing walls behind which free-thinking and inquiry can be nourished. Of course, there are approaches, like meditation and yoga, that strengthen what we might call the private core. These are centering disciplines. And reading is another, not only calling for the same attentiveness, but also, especially where the language is artistically used, making more porous the boundaries between one inwardness and another. This exposure, distinct if invisible, connects the reader with other individual sensibilities, a reminder that the self is neither a statistic nor, God forbid, some kind of product. Reading keeps a person responsive, more readily empathic, and gives a way to avoid falling too deeply under the sway of the suavely coercive pressures of society at large.
In my home, growing up—it was the 1950s—the reading of books was a source of some tension. My mother was a great reader, and I followed her. Our books contained worlds. My father, meanwhile, was a man of the world, a doer, disciplined and intent, and completely confident in his worldview. He scorned reading. In my mother, because he sensed she’d found in those pages her own place to stand. In me, because he saw reading as passive, escapist; it was not preparing me for action in the landscape of adults. His was a judgment of my essential character.
This might be why I’ve always been drawn to a particular passage in Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift. I view his characterization of the poet in a broader context:
The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can’t perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, ‘If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either. Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies.’
Bellow is, of course, playing with the reader, being hyperbolic, but there remains a kernel of truth. Poets, writers, and readers—serious readers—are still seen by many as ineffectual, in flight from the real, and lacking the muscle tone needed to be effective in the world.
The basic opposition is at least as old as Plato’s banishing of poets from his ideal republic—though the philosopher did so because he believed their vocation derived from the irrational, the daemonic. Other writers, from Ovid and Dante to Mandelstam and Brodsky, were banished by rulers who recognized the influencing power of their words. They exposed the corrupt workings of the state. Before the internet, geographical isolation was enough to do the job.
Our means of contact have changed completely, but the word is still recognized as the most potent way to shape opinion (Alexei Navalny, e.g.) and still spurs tyrants’ fear that what has not been said could be—privately, but also for the historical record. What anxiety must Ron DeSantis be feeling as he tries to draw the curtain over the whole of Black history.
Somewhat at odds with Bellow’s assertion about poets is one by William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” he writes, “yet men die miserably / for lack of what is found there.” How succinct and how apt. What is found in poems is difficult to get without the reflective layer added by reading. Difficult because poems’ kind of news is not a message, it’s experience itself, embodied thought and feeling. He is calling for a different understanding of need. Reading requires paying attention to language, sifting through levels of expression, and doing so—this is implicit—with the assumption that there is meaning to be found in our thoughts and behaviors. That sense of meaning and connection is what people die for lack of.
Reading is a way, maybe the best way, to continually attune oneself to that other news—the inward feel of life, one’s own sensibility and the sensibilities of others, the gamut of human response, and so much more that otherwise remains intangible.
To read is to opt, and the opting itself is an act of self-reliance. Seriously read, books etch themselves inside you. Like writing, reading is a way of making things more real, shading in the contours of our experience. Those who don’t read often think of reading as a means of getting away from things. There can be that, of course. But the opposite is more true. Writing and reading, centered on language, are acts of concentration. Putting words to things and events gives them psychological mass and resonance; things not said are unanchored and tend to disappear or exert a gravity we remain unaware of.
Vital and essential as these benefits are, they do fall on the virtuous side of the ledger—reading as a fortifying thing. Which I obviously believe in and have been proclaiming. But there is a self in me who thinks, “Enough about all that, let’s talk about the other thing”—I mean reading as it began for us: lips moving, words mouthed, the awakening of an unknown pleasure. Roland Barthes called this jouissance, a sexually charged word, thereby linking the discovery of language to the awakening of sexual pleasure.
There have been so many times over the years when writing has gone dry for me. My sentences suddenly feel flat and redundant, low on oxygen. I find I can’t bear to put another dutiful phrase to the page. It’s the soul’s dark hour. What saves me at such moments feels almost like an epiphany—maybe it is. Stuck, frustrated, I will at some point remember, as if I’d really forgotten, that sentence-making began in pleasure, that the early immersion in sounds, combinations, and variations was alive with a sense of possibility.
It’s the same with reading. Our schooling puts us through so much duty, has us reading for different ends, always transitive, never just for itself. And we often forget that under that crust of right-thinking citizenship there is a quasi-erogenous language zone and an imagination eager to project itself into characters and situations, or sound-play, or both together.
I think of so many beginnings to novels, memoirs, essays, and poems that give me the sensation of a door swinging slowly open onto some unknown. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. . . . 124 was spiteful. Full of the baby’s venom. . . . A screaming comes across the sky. . . . The cradle rocks above an abyss. . . .* The intimations of pleasure are immediate.
Even as we move ahead, reading for ourselves and no one else, the movement of the eye directs the movement of the mind, invisible to anyone else but as real as the furniture around us, which has for the duration vanished. That connection is as much with the self as it is with the words coming to life or the world they indicate beyond us. As wired as our surroundings may be, nothing can touch this private one-on-one. It’s the thing that my father, alas, never quite got.
* Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier; Toni Morrison, Beloved; Thomas Pynchon,
Gravity’s Rainbow; Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory.
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 10/2022)