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Sven Birkerts Essays

The essay for me begins with the second word, maybe the third or fourth, and it tells on itself—which is to say on the writer’s mind and sensibility—quite soon after that. For the space of a word or two, sometimes longer, the obvious and mediocre can pass as being possibly something more. But not for too many words beyond that. What am I playing at here? I’m overstating things, of course. But I’m also serious: I’m trying to figure out—as a reader, as an editor—how long a work can go without showing its true self—its sui generis character, or its inability to transcend received thinking. As an editor I need to be able to tell quickly. Time is in short supply, and submissions throng the sluices like salmon in spawning season. Yes, the editor needs to know exactly what he’s looking for, and he needs to be cruel—which is to say he needs to believe in his taste.

What plagues me in my capacity of editor at AGNI, an editor who insists on at least looking at everything that comes in, is not bad writing, which announces itself right away and can be dealt with in an eye-blink, but writing which has picked up some of the gestures of authentic uniqueness, enough to lure me in, but which never really comes to life—only comes close enough to have me wondering if it’s me or the prose.    

I have to speak personally here. In looking for nonfiction—or any work, really—I try to make myself susceptible to being struck. The rest is up to the writer.  It took me a long time to come to this, many seasons of reading like a good citizen, remarking to myself as I turned pages and more pages: This is very able, this is clear, this is an important subject—rather than Hey, hey, come here: listen to this!  And there is a world of difference.

If the first words can hint at the quality, the first sentence or two will as often as not reveal. What exactly? Not the subject, not usually, and not necessarily the theme—that stratum of deeper content. But it will reveal the author in voice and in relation to her subject; it will, best case, offer a first clear glimpse of the true goods.

This is natural and inevitable if you think about it. Any stylistic expression gives a running Geiger-counter read-out of the expressing self, and the start of a work more so—because the true writer knows to begin any piece of writing with best foot forward, the style put most conscientiously (and indicatively) to work. By “style” I don’t mean prose in fancy dress, nothing like that; I mean self-sound. It can sometimes arrive looking ordinary, even slightly clunky, as in the first sentence of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s “You Gotta Have Heart” (AGNI 77): “A pack of Vantage containing two cigarettes was in my coat pocket when I arrived at the hospital.” But reading this I was snagged by two things right away—the specificity of the two, and the combustible pairing of “cigarettes” and “hospital.” Why? I picked up hints of defiance, transgression; I felt there was something deliberate, not lazy, in the use of the passive voice; I trusted right away that this was the voice of a truth-teller. I read on.

Or, taking the other extreme, there is the opening that gives away nothing, but does so with a supreme confidence that persuades me instantly: All will be revealed. Robert Leonard Reid (AGNI 76) begins his essay “The Doubling Is Always Observed” thus:

“On the Kupuestra. It is not supple. It communicates nothing. The kupuestra is mute; brittle; many-cornered, the body is a polygon; the choreographic equivalent of Ak-Mak crackers, but without the sesame seeds.”

I didn’t understand a word of this. But what a suggestive fog the writer made: the word-sounds (kupuestra, choreographic, Ak-Mak), the condensed syncopations of phrases, the thrill of analogy, this mysterious entity seen as being “the choreographic equivalent of Ak-Mak crackers, but without the sesame seeds.” The thing with suggestive fogs, of course, is that the wanderer must before long make out a few shapes that will indicate his whereabouts, and then the fog must break, the way it does so thrillingly when the road lifts you up from whatever miasmic valley you had been driving through.

Or else: “It arrived in four pieces—which word, pieces, doesn’t do the job. It arrived in four—four what? Four parts? Four boxes—each one wider and heavier than I, than either of us; and it was just us back then, just Fred and me in our new house—our first house (our first and last, could that be?); the one in which we’d all grow up (not just the kids); the one in which we two will get old (along with the dogs).”

 A tricky attack, this opening of Dinah Lenney’s “Breakfront” (AGNI 76).  At a cursory glance, or skim, it appears to qualify itself almost out of existence—pieces becoming parts becoming boxes, the “I” becoming part of a couple, then a family. But what tremendous control in the voice! A whole life-premise and narrating persona stands revealed on the far side of all of those dashes and parentheses. Indeed, you could say that the stuff of the three parenthetical asides subtly maps a life-trajectory, from aspiration to realization to a wryly wistful projection of a cycle fulfilled.

A few things need to be insisted upon. These three openings are so different because the essays are themselves so different. Every essay that finds its way into AGNI is, I think, norm-defying. I could no more say ‘this is the kind of essay we like’ than I could say what makes a good writer. Beyond, that is, an irresistible drive to tell the truth about an experience, or follow the spoor of language to a striking recognition, or… I would emphasize, too, that had any of the essays cited failed to follow through on the promise their opening extended, I would not have chosen them. But they did, confirming for me the principle of the organicism of the realized work.


Sven Birkerts has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He is the author of nine books, most recently: 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), and The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011).

Sven Birkerts 1951–

American essayist and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Birkerts's career through 1996.

The author of An Artificial Wilderness (1987) and The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), Birkerts is a self-described "amateur" literary critic, who received a citation in excellence in book reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1986. Though not formally trained in criticism nor espousing any particular academic theory in his approach to literature, Birkerts has established a reputation for arguing his positions with passion, clarity, and eloquence, both provoking and welcoming debate about his ideas. His extensive reading (usually in English translation) has qualified him to critique European, Russian, and Latin American literature, producing a critical discourse that not only acknowledges the talents of such literary luminaries as Heinrich Böll, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Jorge Luis Borges, but also recommends the merits of such lesser-known writers as Robert Musil and Erich Heller. Birkerts's critical purview also has extended to matters dealing with the relationship between society and technology in late-twentieth century civilization, specifically in terms of the art of reading, the printed word, and the proliferation of electronic media. Intrigued by the freshness and range of Birkerts's thought, critics generally have admired the simple, quotidian language and style of his essays, although a few have claimed that his literary exegeses neglect problems germane to translated texts and that his cautionary essays about "the fate of the book" often betray profound nostalgia.

Biographical Information

Born in Pontiac, Michigan, Birkerts attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1973. Upon graduating, he stayed in Ann Arbor and worked as a clerk in bookstores there, and later, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, until 1983; he has credited his bookstore experiences for prompting his voracious reading habit, remarking that "I chewed my sandwich with an open book in my lap." Meanwhile, Birkerts contributed book reviews and critical essays on world literature to such periodicals as New Republic, Mirabella, and the Boston Review, serving the latter publication as contributing editor since 1988. In 1984, Birkerts accepted an invitation to join the faculty at Harvard University as a lecturer in expository writing, a po-sition he held until 1991. Following his National Book Critics Circle award, he published his first book, An Artificial Wilderness (1987), a collection comprised mostly of book reviews first published over a seven-year period during the 1980s. For his second book, The Electric Life (1989), Birkerts won the P.E.N. Award for Distinguished Essays in 1990. A prolific contributor of articles and book reviews to numerous periodicals, he collected some of these in American Energies (1992), which deals exclusively with American fiction and writers. A defining moment of Birkerts's reputation came with the publication of his controversial essays in The Gutenberg Elegies. Subsequently, he assembled the essay collection Tolstoy's Dictaphone (1996), which presents opinions on the social effects of technological media. Birkerts, who has lectured extensively both in person and on-line, has taught writing part time at Emerson College in Boston since 1992.

Major Works

Birkerts's writings display a genuine fondness for literature as books (opposed to texts), an abiding respect for the printed word (opposed to electronic formats), and a minute attention to the act of reading words on paper (as opposed to on a screen). The thirty-nine essays collected in An Artificial Wilderness draw attention to the works of some of the world's notable twentieth-century writers whose works are available in English translation, including Joseph Roth, Osip Mandelstam, Marguerite Duras, Michel Tournier, Primo Levi, Lars Gustafsson, V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Julio Cortázar, among many others, notably excepting any contemporary American authors. The other essays in An Artificial Wilderness concern general cultural topics; for instance, the function of television in the creation of the "mass age." The title of The Electric Life alludes to a phrase found in Percy Bysshe Shelley's A Defence of Poetry (1821), which describes poetic language as "electric life that burns." The essays comprising The Electric Life concern the influence of electronic media on contemporary literacy and describe the contemporary social context for the art of poetry. Among the themes contemplated are the ways television informs late twentieth-century poetic language, the idea of poetic inspiration, the politics and aesthetics of poetry, and analyses of some individual poems and poets. American Energies, Birkerts's third collection of book reviews and critical essays, offers a general assessment of the contemporary American novel genre, which he finds weakened or "lightweight"—lacking depth and historical resonance of vision in comparison to previous generations of American novels—due to its coincidence with the technological boom in communications media. Divided into three parts, The Gutenberg Elegies, a collection of fifteen essays, concerns the place of reading in society, centering on changes occurring in print and electronic media and the threat to the act of reading occasioned by these changes. The essays comprising the first section, "The Reading Self," are largely autobiographical, dealing with Birkerts's own reading experiences that illuminate the dynamics of reading. In the second section, "The Electronic Millennium," the essays examine the question of how reading, or the interpretation of texts, changes in an electronic environment. The last section, "Critical Mass: Three Meditations," addresses changes in the culture at large with respect to the quality of literary or intellectual life, the so-called "death of literature," and the ways in which technology has affected the role of the serious writer. Tolstoy's Dictaphone, an essay collection edited by Birkerts, features twenty articles by "writers who use and have been used by today's electronic machinery," as Cliff Stoll has described them, each one reflecting the tension that frequently exists when technology impinges upon social intercourse.

Critical Reception

Birkerts generally has impressed critics with his breadth of knowledge of world literature as well as with his common language and cogent, direct style as an essayist and literary critic. As David Holmstrom put it, "Birkerts brokers his analysis on the reader with a sharply reasoned but calm style." Birkerts's critical acumen, though esteemed as it is in most literary circles, has prompted a vigorous debate about the demise of print-oriented culture in the face of explosive developments in electronic modes of communication. Although many commentators frequently have pointed out Birkerts's evident bias for the printed word and often have cited what Wulf D. Rehder has called "falling in love with our own nostalgia" as the principal defect of the tone of his thought, the majority also have responded to the inherent value of Birkerts's insights, particularly those expressed in The Gutenberg Elegies. "There is no denying that Birkerts' quiver of arguments contains many sharp arrows that are, like Cupid's, dipped in such a sweet poison of persuasion and passion and appeal that, once hit, we might want to give in to their narcotic effect," Rehder has stated. "That Birkerts proves so open to attack," Andy Solomon has observed, "is far more a testament to the courageously vast sweep of his polemic than to the disputable validity of his argument," suggesting that Birkerts's way of thinking and style of writing invites the reader "to synthesize a new, deepened understanding of our own relationships to the printed and electronically transmitted word." Gesturing toward the significance of Birkerts's contribution of The Gutenberg Elegies "to our ongoing discussion of the nature of the continuing electronic revolution and its impact on the nature of the process by which we 'read' and acquire information, knowledge, and wisdom," Norman D. Stevens has asserted that "in the long run, we will all be the poorer if we fail to take [Birkerts's] insights into account as we design and implement electronic alternatives to the book."

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