Here in my house I am surrounded by books, books I have read and books I intend to read, many of which have been in the same spot on the shelf for years, my gaze sweeping over them day after day until they metamorphose into a kind of protruding wallpaper. They recede, becoming what they were before they were first singled out: possibilities. They need to be singled out again in order to be seen. They need to be touched, stirred, their narrow profiles turned to full face. It takes so little. A few minutes of shelf reorganization can create a sudden surprise abundance. Look! I’ll make for one book and walk away with three. Or some wires will cross somewhere in the life and create a happy inadvertency, one of those charmed short-circuitings we file under “chance.” Association brushes against need. It remains mysterious, how a book slowly amasses urgency and at the right moment pounces, finding one of its intended readers, who feels as though there are no others.
How far back can I trace what Stanislaw Lem called “the chain of chance”? This is hard to say. At what point was receptivity first awakened? The book that suddenly pounced is W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo, by a writer who is no simple business for me, and if a fuse was at some point lit, it took a very long time to burn down.
Sebald’s work has always held a complicated attraction for me—his work and the idea of his work, for truth be told I have not read everything. Though I have long counted The Rings of Saturn as one of my reading revelations, I never finished The Emigrants, and I have only nibbled at Austerlitz, always stopping about thirty pages in. Here I rush to my own defense: sometimes you don’t devour the writers you know will be important to you. For that very reason. Their power and influence need to be taken in with care, possibly in small doses. Vertigo—which I have here on the desk now—I took up once, years ago, but I must not have been in the right state. The book ran out on me, or I ran out on it. I didn’t feel the grab of intimacy I thought I should be feeling, where the words move in almost like confidences, so I put it back on the shelf and forgot about it, maybe more deliberately than I forget about many other books. I associated it with a failure on my part, a connection that did not come to pass, but which had, Sebald being who he is, seemed so likely.
I was drawn to Sebald as soon as he appeared on the literary “scene.” I have always been stuck on melancholy brooders, melancholy European brooders especially, and here was one from central casting. Before I even tried to read the man, I put in time with his author photo: that unstylish nineteenth-century Walter Benjamin moustache, the deep set of the eyes with the downward-canted brows, the gaze that seemed to be looking into the sorrowful heart of time itself . . . A writer’s photo is different, I think, than that of an explorer, or actor, or politician. Or maybe I just project upon it differently. All that inwardness to contend with, and in Sebald’s case, all that obvious melancholy. Eyes don’t usually give that much away. No surprise, I had my imaginings in place before I ever started reading. There was so much to consider. Those first translated books were a world unto themselves, with their “oh, by the way” inclusion of police-blotter-quality photographs, history there like teawater run through a strainer, not the romance of sepia, but something else . . . I paged and dipped, and I thought, excited and frustrated: why didn’t I come up with this?
I read The Rings of Saturn and fell in immediately with its deceptively casual conceit—the Sebald-narrator taking a walking tour along the eastern coast of England—and its agitatedly introverted atmosphere. Wandering across a landscape—it is the perfect correlative for thinking. The object noticed, focused in on, associated to, digressed from; the slow lapsing of time, narrative tracked to changing weather and the position of the sun. The pace of reading and the pace of walking: I felt like I had entry to this man’s thoughts—their tone, the rhythm of their transitions. Of course it was artifice: writing. But the artifice worked—which is the point. I had the repeat sensation, so rare for me in reading, of finding. I also caught myself feeling greedy. I wanted to take qualities he had for my own uses.
I did not rush out to read everything else of Sebald’s. I was afraid to dilute the wisdom, my sense of discovery, with more work that might be similar. Maybe for that reason, The Rings of Saturn became one of the books that is still charged with electricity for me. While I walk past most of my books daily without really registering them, there are like this one a few exceptions. Books that I notice because they confirm me; that extend a promise of futurity that I don’t think I could ever explain to anyone. Benjamin’s Illuminations, Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, some of the novels of Javier Marías, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory . . . But I’d best not start on lists. Only say that these are the books I relate to via the gestures of private ritual. It is enough for me to pick out their spines as I walk through the room to my desk. They remind me of what it is I’m doing. Trying to do.
Because of its method, the perfect aptness of its prose-tempo, Sebald’s confidence in his freedom—“I will write exactly this!"—The Rings of Saturn is almost always a goad. I see the blue and salmon spine of that New Directions paperback and I immediately want to be daring my way onto the page, breaking in some new tone of mattering. When I first took in the Sebald voice, got the jittery-making shock of fresh connections, the thread that ran from this East Anglian landscape to some nuance of Chinese silkworm culture, I saw that the real project of writing was just beginning. Any true writer read at the right time will do this. That Sebald could get so vividly what felt like the active traces of how the mind moves, its patterns—stops and starts and looping recursions—and invoke so hauntingly, so continuously, the regress of historical time, the immensity of what has fallen out of reach, what keeps falling out of reach . . . I was moved in ways I am not often moved.
And then, not long after, came the news that Sebald had died in an automobile accident. At fifty-eight. More or less my age. I was philosophically confounded. Sebald was a walker, a wanderer. Whether romantic or naive, I could not imagine him behind a wheel. A crash was such a tearing of my idea of the life. Which only proved I know nothing. Though I will say it made a little more sense when I heard later that he’d had a heart attack while driving. More projective nonsense. In any event, the canonization that had been underway—at least since Susan Sontag gave her highest imprimatur—intensified. Almost dangerously, I thought—for so much collective adoration could only threaten my sense of our intimate bond. To save my personal claim on Sebald, I had to turn my back on him—or, more accurately, I had to turn sideways, to keep him in my peripheral vision, but not let my own connection be swamped by some larger sense of his importance.
So things stood with Sebald and myself until just the other day when I received in the mail a book that I had actually been thinking of buying, Leah Price’s Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books. A photo book of writers’ bookshelves. Shelf candy: an old obsession done up for me in a slick, shiny package. I put in quite a bit of time with this rectangular little hardcover, barely skimming Price’s conversations with the contemporary writers pictured, really just turning the thing this way and that in my hands as I studied, in sequence, slowly, the high-res color photographs of sections of their various libraries. I couldn’t resist. My shelf-scanning reflex goes back to a whole previous existence spent working in bookstores: new, used, rare, scholarly . . . Fifteen years of my young adult life surveying spines, lines of print tipped on their sides. To this day, I can’t walk past a wall of books, or even a shelf (except one of my own, of course), without stopping, turning my head sideways, nudging the gaze along from title to title.
It was somewhere in those pages that I spotted several of Sebald’s books, ones I already owned. That fact was immaterial. Seeing them there, pictured, I wanted them. Had I been near a bookstore I might have gone in and paid good money for them. It was the dog-bone principle perfectly illustrated, and it says a good deal about the fantasy of ownership.
As soon as I set the photo book aside, I started scanning my own shelves. Vertigo. Whatever the deeper reason, I needed to find that book. But where was it? I was not seeing it. To be clear: it’s not like I live inside some great catacomb of books. My holdings are neither vast nor special; they are not a “library” in any meaningful sense. Rather, I am surrounded by the books that have in one way or another accrued to me over some decades of bookselling, reviewing, and reading—minus the many that I have carted, never without struggle, to used bookstores and library donation bins. That I still have a few thousand shows me I am a victim of the possibilitarian’s fallacy: I can imagine a scenario, a psychological state, for which almost any book becomes the very thing I need. It is the basis of all acquisition.
I convinced myself that Vertigo was in the attic, where I keep most of my books. This is the place of disorderly piles and strategic double-shelvings. When my bookman’s memory was still well-tuned, I could in a moment put my hand on any title in the house. I could also very often—this is a pre-Google attainment—speed my way to a half-remembered quotation by picturing where in which book I had once seen it, which side of the page, which part of the page . . . These skills have been eroding for years, confirmed by the fact that when confronted with the easiest of quarries, I blundered from room to room like the giant looking for Jack. Here was Austerlitz, here was Unrecounted, a book of little poems featuring lithographs by one Jan Peter Tripp, and here, in yet another place, was The Rings of Saturn. Why were all my Sebald books not together? One of these days . . . The search intensified. In about twenty minutes’ time, the world had narrowed down so radically that nothing mattered except that my hand should fall on Vertigo. I pictured it so vividly I almost called it into being, and—
And here it is! Look at this! Not in the attic at all, but in the bookcase behind the attic door. Of course! But a hardcover with a dust jacket—for some absurd reason I was hunting for a paperback—and on the back, the familiar sticker from the Harvard Book Store, another mystery: could I really have paid full price?
No matter—I had the book. What a satisfaction. Within minutes I had pushed the rest of the irrelevant world aside and settled myself into my favorite chair with the good lamp switched on bright. I remember reading somewhere how animals will obsessively lick their fresh-killed prey, making it fully their own before they take it apart with fangs and claws. I was like that now, inspecting the author photo, blurbs, copyright page, epigraphs or dedications (none of either), all that random eye-grazing which is just my way of tuning up to read.
What makes for rightness—the needed book arriving into the jigsawed hour of need with its perfect jigsawed contour? What was the need? Who can say? I hadn’t even known I had a need until the idea of the book announced itself.
Vertigo—designated (and I can’t get over this, even after reading it) as a novel—affected me immediately and powerfully because I believed the voice in the first-person sections to be Sebald’s own. I speak out of a deliberately naive conviction that has nothing to do with anything I may know about theory, and I understand that I’m getting into a problem area here. Sebald, of course, is all about slippery narrative status. Indeed, I did some searching around after I finished the book and found the man himself saying that he believes any fiction writing “which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture” . . . . And: “Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable.” Wasn’t this basis enough for my leap of attribution? If the publishers, or even the author himself, saw fit to call Vertigo a “novel,” it is nonetheless a novel that refuses the invented narrator, and more or less embraces the porousness of narrator and authorial self.
Vertigo is Sebald’s first book, his preliminary venture into what he would over the next years stake out as his utterly sui generis way of filtering experience into art. The work unfolds in four distinct sections and is, in a sense, about how complexities of relatedness—whether narrative, thematic, symbolic, or merely suggestive—disclose themselves in the narrator’s (and thus the reader’s) mind. The overt theme is that of travel, more specifically the movement of the nervously attuned and alienated sensibility—the literary sensibility—through often unfamiliar places. The first section, “Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet,” fixes upon Stendhal in Italy in the early 1800s. The second, “All’estero,” features the quasi-Sebaldian narrator moving between England, Vienna, Venice, Verona, and Riva on Lake Garda during a “difficult period” in 1980. “Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva,” the third section, follows Franz Kafka during his visit to that same resort in 1913. And “Il ritorno in patria,” the last, puts us back with the Sebaldian narrator—now in 1987, when he returns, after a long decade’s absence, to the Tyrolean town of W., where he grew up. This section is, in psychological terms, the anchor of the book; the narrator’s pained re-encounter with the contorted repressions of village mentality clarify much about his angst, the condition that we first connected with him—as per Aristotle—in medias res.
There is no real plot or narrative progress between the four sections, and scarcely any within any one of them. This fits Sebald’s essential metaphysics, according to which—or so I see it—the traditional sequences, their expository unfoldings, are trumped by vibrations of significance, or likeness. These do not usually manifest themselves in situations or conflicts, but are, rather, dispersed through time; they are only perceived by the hypersensitive antennae of the narrator. In marketplace terms, nothing much happens. But in Sebald’s world that “nothing much” is everything. The intensities of situation on which most literary narrative depends are dissolved here into something more general and elusive: the possibility that existence is awash with coded lines of connection, partial meanings that these solitary and enervated individuals can, in crashing little spasms, almost parse out. That they cannot decipher any final transcendent message about human fate is frustrating; at the same time, those spasms, in their moment, feel profound.
But this inconclusive profundity, this weave of intimations—is it enough? Can it serve as a basis for a potent literary—or aesthetic—or even existential experience? How do we talk about this?
Sebald’s narrative agenda has a great deal to do with coincidence—which is naturally intriguing when it happens in one’s own life, and can become even more compelling when its effects are multiplied by a writer like Sebald to suggest a different interpretive reading of the order of things.
I’m probably not alone in feeling a distinct inner surge, an excitement, when one of these events occurs. We love the uncanny, even when it is—as coincidences almost always are—utterly trivial. Two apparently unrelated things intersect at a point of likeness. The phone rings. Five sequential digits on the caller ID happen to match the number I just wrote on the line in my checkbook. There is no relation. The call is from a charity solicitation. Still . . .
Why should a click like this send up a private spark? Is it simply that something unlikely has happened, or—or is it because the happening for a short moment correlates to our wish: that the seeming randomness of daily life might have imbedded in it some interesting traces of order? More daringly: does that flash let us imagine some force capable of bringing x and y together in a spirit of playful awareness?
I’m not trying to open the door on anything theological here. Isn’t it possible to have inklings that don’t become doctrinaire isms of any kind, that simply lend more mystery and significance to events than we usually do? An expanded sense of meaning would suggest that we have richer semiotic endowments than we imagine. Why was it that Vertigo, not tangibly plotted, or having any animated character interactions, nonetheless woke me up completely while I was reading, and then stayed with me for several days after, so that I was looking at everything through its peculiar goggles? All this, I kept thinking, from a book. But maybe not a book so much as a heard voice, a sensibility absorbed. Curious, I searched around on the Internet to see if my response had echoes. Though I found much on Sebald, I found very little on Vertigo. It appears that the book addressed something I was wanting especially.
What is the compelling nature of Sebald’s world? I am tempted to say “fictional world,” but this has not—by his own design—been established. What’s more, the sense the writer creates of hovering between genres has much to do with that compelling nature. Sebald requires the license of fiction to animate certain scenarios (like portraying Stendhal crossing the Alps, Kafka arriving at Riva), but at the same time he expects from the reader the particular intimate credence we grant to the first-person memoirist.
Here is an example from the book, but it will be only partially illustrative, for I am extracting a single thread from a text (and here the etymology fits nicely: text, textum, “something woven”) comprised of innumerable interconnected threads of this sort, threads that, taken together, illustrate how a watchful intelligence discovers and elaborates narratives from the coincidences of experience. What Sebald models, in other words, is the process of his own remarkable intelligence.
In this portion of “All’estero,” the second section, Sebald—or his literary proxy, if you will—is in Venice. He is, here as throughout—almost like a Thomas Bernhard character—in a condition of unspecified agitation. At one point early on, aboard a vaporetto, he notices an old, gaunt man and suddenly believes he is seeing King Ludwig II of Bavaria—a hallucinated recognition which tips us off to the extremity of his nervous condition. He himself, however, remarks this with detached bemusement, and when the man alights and walks away he makes nothing more of it. There is just enough bemused detachment in the telling to make us think he is really only proposing a likeness, fancying a historical visitation—and we (or I) leave it at that. But with this we have been put on notice. History, the imagination of the past, is pressing actively on the narrator’s sensibility.
The narrator then takes his morning coffee at one of the bars on the Riva degli Schiavoni. He is “reading the Gazzettino,” he reports, “making notes for a treatise on King Ludwig in Venice, and leafing through [Franz] Grillparzer’s Italian Diary, written in 1819.” This is also, note, the historical period that is the focus of the first section, when we follow Stendhal in his travels through Italy. Sitting now with his coffee, the narrator invokes Grillparzer as a kindred spirit: “Nothing pleases me, any more than it did him; the sights I find infinitely disappointing, one and all; and I sometimes think that I would have done far better to stay at home with my maps and timetables.” Citing Grillparzer’s observations on the Doge’s Palace, he thinks of the writer’s paranoia about the “Invisible Principle” of justice and retribution the palace engendered. “Shivers of fever,” he writes, “beset the poor hypersensitive man.”
This mention of the Doge’s Palace gives Sebald his transition to the figure of Giacomo Casanova, and the story of his imprisonment in its basement chambers. Segues of this sort, Sebald’s readers know, are central to the method. Taken together, they map the road system of his mind. Here the decisiveness tells us something important is in the offing. First we learn that the writer-libertine was locked up in the palace in a twelve-by-twelve-foot cell in 1755. He was made to suffer the most inhumane treatment as he awaited sentencing and very likely execution. Desperate, he plotted an elaborate escape, until he needed only to determine what would be the most propitious moment. Sebald writes:
In order to decide on the precise day and hour, Casanova consulted Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, using a system comparable to the Sortes Virgilianae. First he wrote down his question, then he derived numbers from the words and arranged these in an inverse pyramid, and finally, in a threefold procedure that involved subtracting nine from every pair of figures, he arrived at the first line of the seventh stanza of the ninth canto of Orlando Furioso, which runs: Tra il fin d’ottobre e il capo di novembre [between the end of October and the start of November]. This instruction, pinpointing the very hour, was the alldecisive sign Casanova had wanted, for he believed that a law was at work in so extraordinary a coincidence, inaccessible to even the most incisive thought, to which he must therefore defer. For my part, Casanova’s attempt to plumb the unknown by means of a seemingly random operation of words and numbers later caused me to leaf back through my own diary for that year, whereupon I discovered to my amazement, and indeed to my considerable alarm, that the day in 1980 on which I was reading Grillparzer’s journal in a bar on the Riva degli Schiavoni between the Danieli and Santa Maria della Visitazione, in other words near the Doge’s Palace, was the very last day of October, and thus the anniversary of the day (or rather, night) on which Casanova . . . broke out of the lead-plated crocodile.
The image of the prison as crocodile is Grillparzer’s, not Casanova’s.
I should say that I am not in any deep thrall to this brand of uncanny, nor inclined to numerology, or betting the lottery based on any secret system, though I will, I admit, catch a head-shaking sense of uplift when, every so often, a harmonic connection is struck between disparate things. In the hands of Sebald, or Nabokov, or Borges, style and subject can be orchestrated to simulate a kind of waking dream, one that draws on my experience of the world, calls up my own episodes of coincidence, and then infuses my thinking, what I notice and regard and how I notice and regard.
This is the reading life as I would pursue it: idealized, immersive—transformational. I sat down with Vertigo on that recent afternoon, poised, receptive, convinced that this was the book I wanted. I opened and read: “In mid-May of the year 1800 Napoleon and a force of 36,000 men crossed the Great St. Bernard pass, an undertaking that had been regarded until that time as next to impossible.” Though I had, as noted, made an unsuccessful start on the book some years before, I had little idea of what I was in for, and I’m not exactly sure what pulled me in this time, for I didn’t think it was historical narrative I was really after. Within a page Sebald had introduced the seventeen-year-old Henri Beyle (who would become the writer Stendhal), in such a way that recalled the cinematic effect of a lens sweeping across a large crowd before zooming in on the figure—and by implication the fate—of one individual.
As happens so rarely now, though it happened all the time when I was younger, I was overpowered. I could not seem to break away from my reading, page after page, and when interruptions came, they chafed. I did get up to go to the store, to help with dinner, but inwardly I had my finger on the place where I had stopped, as if I was just looking away for a moment. What was it? Not the tensions of plot, certainly. Any tension I felt had to do with the other—more metaphysical—outcome. Why was Sebald telling of these figures, of himself—or his proxy—at this particular point in his life? When disparate things are brought together—as in a chemistry lab, as here—we allow for higher levels of the unforeseen. There would be, I knew, illuminations of specific historical moments, and insights into the lives of fascinating literary figures. But these did not fully account for my sense of compulsion. Rather, it was as if some powerful built-up need, the psychological equivalent, possibly, of a vitamin deficiency, had me looking for whatever could appease it. It could be that this need had somehow put me in the way of the chances and choices that brought the book to my mind. There was the unexpected trigger of the bookshelf photos, the flaring up of the impulse to find and read. Which, in turn, could only have happened because I had picked up inklings over time—in reading other books by Sebald, in those almost peripheral intimations, gathered during even the most casual inspections, that the tone and pace were somehow in sync with my reading disposition . . . I was confirmed in this quickly.
What is this negotiation? How do we decide after just a few pages of prose whether or not to invest ourselves? I have turned away from so many books that I know are important and beautifully written because the prose was not then suiting me—too this, too that, rhythmically jarring, discursive when that was not what I was looking for, too terse for my melancholy, too serious for my whimsies . . . It seems the older I get, the greater are the odds against a ready mesh. Have I really become so finicky? What I increasingly want is an experience so customized I will finally have no choice but to create it myself, though there is no more joy in reading your own prose than in kissing the side of your hand and pretending it’s your beloved.
In any case, here was a book that made clear what I had been wanting. A very particular blend of elements. Most crucial was Sebald’s way of summoning the past—his idea of the past. Under his spell, it occurred to me that maybe it was no accident that just a day or two before I had been reading an essay on blues musicians by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and of all the brilliant passages had marked this one quote. Sullivan is writing about an old song called “Poor Mourner,” remembering his great-grandmother: “Knowing that this song was part of the fabric of the world she came into lets me know I understand nothing about that period, that very end of the nineteenth century. We live in such constant nearness to the abyss of past time that the moment is endlessly sucked into. The Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky said that art exists ‘to make the stone stony.’”
This idea—so easy to forget as we move through the moment, caught up in the illusion that it has ever been thus—Sebald too asserts it. He makes it clear, through the care of his historical narration, that the past is a succession of dreams, each profoundly different from the dream we are dreaming. He achieves this through subtle feats of documentation, his specificity and strangely alien visual inserts, but also through his use of archetypal- feeling word-images. But the matter is more complex still.
I come back to the same section, “All’estero,” where, taking cues from Beyle’s (Stendhal’s) own narrative in De l’Amour, Sebald recounts a journey taken by that writer and a woman friend of his, Mme Gherardi. At one point Sebald writes: “Since the breezes traverse Lake Garda from north to south around midnight but from south to north in the hours before dawn, they first rode along the bank as far as Gargnano, halfway up the lake shore, and from there took a boat aboard which, as day broke, they entered the small port of Riva, where two boys were already sitting on the harbour wall playing dice.” Right after this they see an old boat, from which “two men in dark silver-buttoned tunics were at that moment carrying a bier ashore on which, under a large, frayed, flower-patterned silk cloth, lay what was evidently a human form.” The scene is memorable, and sets up a disturbing gravity, which is deliberate and bears on a feature of Vertigo that is in no way yet evident. I zero in on it not to probe the meanings of the book, but rather to illustrate something of the complexly charged process of reading a writer like Sebald.
Encountering this passage, I was caught up by its specificity, by Sebald’s way of underscoring that potent sense of other times as being “other.” I was also aware, here as throughout, of what felt like a special density of significance. The scene—it felt so deliberately placed—aroused my curiosity. Where would it lead? Why this vibration of the uncanny? Only much later did I register the resonance of history: it is to this very place, Riva, that Kafka travels. The recognition, coming in gradual stages, is unsettling. But the matter goes deeper. It was not until after I had finished Vertigo and, following a trail, began reading an essay about Kafka’s story, “The Hunter Gracchus” (in a book of that title by Guy Davenport), that I learned that the boys playing dice and the figure on the bier were in fact scenes not of Sebald’s or Beyle’s, but from the Czech writer’s imagination. I could only assume there might be any number of other implanted correspondences I had missed. That something is not directly recognized by the reader does not mean that it is not—possibly in the manner of Hemingway’s famous iceberg—exerting effects.
What those might be—and what Sebald intended thematically with the Gracchus reference—is not my subject here. I am much more interested in thinking about that sense I had while reading—it was almost magnetic—that this work had something important for me. I felt a culminating kind of saturation, which was brought on through the coincidences and thematic overlays. But the importance was not in the specific ricochets. Rather, it was in the growing implication of connectedness. I felt at times like I was on the brink of translation, almost extracting meaning from these familiar but unreadable signs. Sebald had me looking “through a glass darkly,” only I was not sure exactly what I was looking at. Very briefly, for I know how these things fade again, like the shadowy dampness on the sand as the wave draws back—to adapt a half-remembered image from the book—I saw the world as the unimaginably layered thing it is, full of strange likenesses, but also impenetrable, available to comprehension in the merest flashes, if at all.
Books are so easily masked by familiarity, crowded into indistinctness by others of their kind, their original explosiveness gone latent, awaiting some circumstance in the life of the reader to make them actual, as the writing was for the writer. Books are singularities, trade routes for private intensities. We forget this. Reading itself falls to habit, the eye switching back and forth down pages, down the lengths of columns, just another thing we do, until one day a book comes along that has the force, or is such a fit to what we need, that it renews the act for us. How did we ever forget what happened that first time, whenever it was, with the eruption of another’s voice, that stark surprise breaching of time and distance, the sense we had of standing high on a ledge looking over?
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)