Reading Birkerts: what and how

In the opening pages of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts focuses in on a way of thinking about reading (and as he points out, reading/writing, since the two go together) that we are going to explore and exploit throughout the course. Basically, what he does, and what we will do as we continue to read him and other authors, is foreground the process of reading and style of writing that he has in front of him. Pull back the curtain, as I have suggested (to use the Oz image), on the mechanics and craft (for me, mechanics need not be a bad word; it might be for Birkerts, however) of the writing.

We see this vividly in the opening of his first chapter, in his focus on Virginia Woolf and her ‘stylistic verve’; on the ‘how’ of her writing rather than the ‘what.’ So, this is a useful starting point for us, since we are also interested in exploring the craft of writing (and its relation to the thinking that goes in to critical reading) and want, also, to develop the verve (vivacity, vitality) of our style. A basic definition of style in writing I would suggest is the how that informs the what; the method and mediation that shapes the message.  I wonder what your sense of style is: what the word means to you, in regard to writing and also to other acts and arts. I also wonder what your sense of your own style is.

And so, as we continue to read Birkerts, in addition to developing a grasp of his ‘message’ and pursuing a critical reading of this text, we also want to use him to think about his style and our style. We will often talk about not the what of his writing but the how. And do this to see what we can learn as writers, borrow from his example.

To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, myself who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for an essay) a useful, decent model for an introduction: declaring ‘straightforwardly’ his ‘premise‘ and ‘focus‘ and working towards a full statement of his thesis:

As the printed book, and the ways of the book–of writing and reading–are modified, as electronic communications assert dominance, the ‘feel’ of the literary engagement is altered. Reading and writing come to mean differently; they acquire new significations. (6)

We will work throughout the course on ways to develop our own introductions and how to set up our focus and thesis more effectively. So, consider this introduction as a useful example to get back to when you are working on your own essays. We will talk more in class and workshops about what is useful and what is effective in how Birkerts introduces his argument and the ways we can learn from his “how.” One thing we see right away that I would suggest is effective: Birkerts tells us at key points what he is arguing, highlighting key words that signal to us something important: premise, focus. He talks to us as readers of his writing–as though he is having a conversation with us.

Your initial writing in response to our reading, the glog (which can and should lead to stronger writing for your essay projects), can begin to notice and focus more on this ‘how’ in addition to providing some summary of what a particular author has said. Notice how an author like Birkerts uses words like ‘premise’ or ‘focus’ or talks to you as a reader.

And at the same time (of course) we are reading this book for the “what.” What interests me right away is to note the ways that this focus on how–and more generally on the “non-linear” style of writing/thinking that he appreciates in Woolf and wants to imitate in his own–sounds like a key characteristic of digital writing and the technological mediation of thought and language that he is trying to resist. He says in his opening paragraph: “All thinking is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do” (11). At the end of the semester, when we get to electronic literature and digital writing, this quotation will seem very apt for how we “partake” in the thinking of “hypertext” and its Einsteinian relativitiy. So I suppose my question for Birkerts at this point: do you secretly wish, or perhaps by necessity, need to write (the how) in a way that contradicts the logic of your argument (the what: reading should not be relative, relational)?

By the way, Birkerts does–it may surprise you, sometimes post a blog. Here he is on the Kindle.

making use of the medium: some ways to develop a blog posting

I mentioned in class Wednesday that we would be focusing in the course on ways that we could develop and strengthen our writing by being more aware and making better use of the medium (and in some cases, multi-media) of writing. The blog postings you are doing in response to reading and discussion (and on your way to the larger writing projects) are a good example. So here are some tips, offered in response to your initial posts, for ways to develop a stronger response and to experiment with future postings.

  • Provide a  focus for your response–both in terms of summary (what the reading says) and analysis (what you say, your critical thinking in response to the reading). Some simple ways to develop focus:
    • title: at the end, or while writing the blog (I suggest you save or publish the blog before finishing, and then update it once or twice while writing), use this to ask yourself: what am I getting at.
      • at the very least, don’t title it “blog #1”; start experimenting with some creative thinking–will need a good title for your essays.
    • summary (what you hear the reading say): think 2-4 sentences, an initial paragraph that summarizes in a way that will allow you to later dig in to a key point and elaborate further.
    • elaboration (what you notice; what you want to say about the reading): dig in by providing a  quotation; use the quotation tool (in toolbar) to highlight this.
    • basic paragraphing: though the posting need not be fully edited or as formally organized as an essay, consider some basic paragraph breaks to move from summary to analysis, to distinguish different main points; this will also allow you to do some practice with transitions.
    • tags: after finishing the draft, the tag function invites some reflection on what the focus has been, what some key ideas and keywords are; tags can also be effective later when working on an essay and looking for material–to remember or be surprised by some associations (two different posts that turn out to be related by a tag); tags can sometimes lead to interesting associations to other blogs.
  • Advance your focus by making a link
    • the basic links we will use (and mainly use in writing) are quotations and citations.
    • consider digital quotation: a link to a site that offers definition or explanation or example for your focus.
      • use the link function in the toolbar
    • consider linking/inserting an image or other media, if relevant and effective for your focus
  • Look ahead: to discussion in class, to the next section of the reading, to your next posting.
    • one way to conclude effectively (wrap up, but not entirely–since a blog by definition is not a finished product, should have more to say): ask a question.

archive: fall 2008

Links to Student Blogs from Fall 2008

9.30 class

  1. Victoria Maurer Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 3:35 pm eVictoria Maurer
    Tory’s Turf: Spontaneous Expression
    9:30 class
  2. kkrammer2 Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 6:14 pm eKerry Krammer
  3. stursi2 Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 7:04 pm eSarah Tursi
  4. Kelsey McGuinn Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 10:21 pm
  5. bpaulshock2 Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 11:52 pm e
  6. boczon Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 2:49 pm eJoanna Boczon
    9:30 class
  7. bstafford2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 3:39 pm e Wepsite for billy Stafford
  8. bbotti2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 4:00 pm
  9. sampolan Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 4:49 pm eThis Sam Polan and my user name is sampolan as one word.
  10. pwsanford Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 6:01 pm ePaige Sanford
  11. Sara Krome Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 6:38 pm e
  12. moelary2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 6:39 pm e
  13. doctorshelley Says:
    August 30, 2008 at 1:29 pm eDana Case:
  14. Liza Twilley Says:
    August 31, 2008 at 3:30 pm eusername: ltwilley
  15. doctorshelley Says:
    September 1, 2008 at 1:28 pm eMatt N:
  16. doctorshelley Says:
    September 6, 2008 at 11:40 am eHannah B.

12.30 class

  1. Rachela Forcellese Says:
    August 27, 2008 at 6:06 pm eSorry I’m posting twice, I put my link in the website category thinking it would show up in the comment.

  2. denise320 Says:
    August 27, 2008 at 8:26 pm ehello again. just noticed an error – that should be not wordpost… whoops )
  3. sevans5 Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 9:43 pm eSteve Evans Blod
  4. lsbriscia2 Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 11:17 pm eLeah Sbriscia Glog
    12:30 Section
  5. ngaeto Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 12:48 am eNick Gaeto:
  6. mdrake2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 1:14 am eMichael Drake
    12:30 Section
  7. Steve Stranahan Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm e
  8. hphillips2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 6:11 pm eThis is Heather Phillips this is my address:
  9. blongwell2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 6:51 pm eI leave myself to the will of the peanut gallery at

  10. jbiringer3 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 7:15 pm ehere’ the link to my glog/blog/whatever the hell you would call this

  11. mkimme2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 8:38 pm eThis is the link to my glog.

    Meaghan Kimme

  12. doctorshelley Says:
    August 30, 2008 at 2:39 pm eAndrew Martz:
  13. doctorshelley Says:
    August 30, 2008 at 2:40 pm eAmy Shaw:
  14. julia steinberg Says:
    August 31, 2008 at 12:55 am ehope this works
  15. corinne welker Says:
    September 1, 2008 at 1:26 pm emy glog
  16. doctorshelley Says:
    September 6, 2008 at 10:48 am eEric Schaefer

1.30 class:

  1. mstroman2 Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 5:44 pm e

    Mary Stroman’s blog -)

  2. ccarter3 Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 6:12 pm e

    Caitlin’s blog

  3. sfranklin2 Says:
    August 28, 2008 at 9:13 pm eSarah Franklin-
  4. rrogers228 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 4:12 pm eThis is Rachael Rogers. I have class at 1:30 mwf. The name of my blog is “Glog: A New Frontier” and it can be found at
  5. rdeegan2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 4:22 pm eThis is Rosey Deegan, my blog can be found at
  6. Sally Snover Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 4:47 pm eThis is Sally Snover and my blog can be found at
  7. kad21 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 4:51 pm eThis is Katie Dean and my glog name is The Clueless Glogger and I can be found at Class MWF@1.30
  8. steph150 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 6:45 pm e MWF 1.30 Stephanie Hackett
  9. ecarbone2 Says:
    August 29, 2008 at 7:12 pm ethis is the link to glog, Professor Meehan

    – Liz Carbone

  10. cvetick2 Says:
    August 31, 2008 at 6:07 pm e
  11. gretchen harz Says:
    September 1, 2008 at 1:36 am egretchen harz’s gloggg!
  12. wdempster2 Says:
    September 1, 2008 at 3:14 am e
  13. dcrystal2 Says:
    September 1, 2008 at 12:15 pm e
  14. sal schittino Says:
    September 1, 2008 at 4:07 pm e
  15. ballinsal3 Says:
    September 3, 2008 at 3:50 pm e
  16. Hmeem2 Says:
    September 4, 2008 at 9:24 pm e

    Halsey’s Blog

  17. doctorshelley Says:
    September 6, 2008 at 10:47 am eKristine Cunningham

amniotic environment of impulses

Critical Application: Stitching Birkerts into our thinking and writing.


Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224).

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, suggests that Birkerts’ problem is to see connection as the problem…  

My example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts’ own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions.

It is worth noting that I have only recently discovered a thriving community of blogs out there that focus on books–passionate readers of books who blog about the books they are reading, want to read. A community of readers using the “condition of connectedness” of the web and blogging technology to extend their interest in book reading. What would Birkerts think? Here is a link to one such blog, So Many Books, which offers in its blogroll quite a list of book blogs. I look at this blog with interest in the social connections it makes between readers and books, through its “amniotic environment.” I am overwhelmed not by the electronic impulses, but by the reminder of the sheer number of books out there that we can, it seems, never catch up with and fully read. 

On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creationg and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable.