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Beyond the "End of the Book"
"Being a curmudgeon is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it."
Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies

Even with hypertexts such as this, with handy tables of contents, the reader can run but can't hide from the nonlinear, laterally processed nature of the reading. When I delve into electronic texts, at least those that contain hypertextual links, I fear a loss of a state of mind that Birkerts (1994) associates with reading books:

We are free to indulge our subjective associative impulse; the term I coin for this is deep reading: the slow and meditative possession of a book. We don't just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity. The printed page becomes a kind of wrought-iron fence we crawl through, once we have wandered, to the very place we started (p. 146).

Birkerts makes many arguments that are based upon his subjective experiences as bookseller, reader, and bibliophile. He does qualify his distaste for networked computers a bit, when he argues that, for the natural sciences at least, electronic versions of reference materials are useful to have at one's fingertips. He does draw a line in the sand for the humanities, and in doing so he recapitulates arguments made long ago, such as the erasure of memory in an age of readily accessible information. As Don Langham (1994), Mick Doherty (1994) and others have shown us, in Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates makes similar arguments against writing. Socrates claims that writing would impoverish individuals and divorce them from the company of others. Contemporary writers of jeremiads against computers assume, among other things, that we readers of electronic texts are like poor Phaedrus, who could not repeat anything coherent without hauling out a transcript from his robes. Faced with this, Socrates calls for "the true discourse. . .which is inscribed in men's souls, and is delivered through speech" instead of the perishable written record ( Langham, 1994).

Granted, a conception of discourse "in men's souls" can be wildly at odds with much of the discourse encouraged by networked communication. As Gergen (1991) notes, today the self becomes "populated" by the constant deluge of marketing information and contact with others via Internet, phone, and modern transportation. In darker moments, as I hang out at one of the city's few surviving independent booksellers, and see what most other book buyers purchase, I ask myself whether Birkerts isn't correct. Is modern society, aided by the inaction or outright collusion of institutions of higher education, producing a class of "efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference" (Birkerts, 1994, p. 194)?

A strong counter argument to Birkerts' "nightmare scenario" holds that from Socrates on, these sorts of fears have accompanied every shift in the technology of literacy. Randy Bass, in a brilliant keynote speech for the 1996 Epiphany-Project Summer Institute, imagined the horror of clerics after Gutenberg's press began its work. Anyone could have a book, even Holy Writ. Anyone could tote knowledge around under his middle-class arm, anyone could have access to information and, by extension, the power it conveys. In the 1890s, four centuries after Gutenberg, typewriters appeared in schools and students had an alternative to writing out their work by hand. Joseph Kalmbach (1997) has unearthed a body of research from the 1890s to 1930s showing increased interest among students in collaborative writing classes equipped with typewriters. These students often published typewritten newsletters and other original work, but the research was ignored by senior teachers and administrators. The implications of the studies undermined administrators' emphasis on increasing test scores and many teachers' desires to preserve a canon of great books. Penmanship died hard; I failed lessons in it three decades after typewriter labs sprung up in the elementary schools of the 1930s. Even in the early 1970s, no students in my elementary school had access to the cutting-edge technology for collaborative writing and student publishing: typewriter, ditto, and mimeograph.

This page is not designed to make Sven Birkerts, those Kalmbach (1997) calls "conservative" humanists, and other critics of technology the scapegoats for the rage of pomo-humanities digeratti. Birkerts does make a troubling observation about the nature of reading e-text, especially hypertexts. Although I write and read Web texts on a regular basis, I find it difficult to refute the claim that "The more sophisticated our systems of lateral access, the more we sacrifice in the way of depth" (Birkerts, 1994, p. 26). While writing this page, within one minute I was able to laterally move to an on-line journal and one conference site, all through a third site at a university. This ease of access is good for a skilled reader, but for students inexperienced in the process of deep reading, I am not so sure. This is particularly true with freshman making the transition from Web pages, anthologies, and Cliff notes, all lending themselves to lateral access of information, to the sorts of vertically layered narratives they encounter in the Core Course and similar curricula. In "Page Vs. Pixel" (1995), an on-line discussion in Feed Magazine, Birkerts argues these points in detail, and with great clarity, with Carolyn Guyer, Michael Joyce, and Robert Stein. Birkerts also had the courage to step into the ring with those who congregate at the Atlantic Unbound Web site. In a spirited but civil discussion entitled "Is Cyberspace Destroying Society," Birkerts makes plain his fears about the loss of a solitary self, a "flattening" of historical and literary perspectives, and a degradation of a language put through the mills of advertising, news sound-bytes, and cyber-discourse (Stossel 1995).

This is even a larger problem, and I'll make a Romantic claim that puts me squarely in Birkerts' camp on at least one more point: sadly, for many of students and us too, knowledge has become a commodity, not a treasure. Naguib Mahfouz's and Toni Morrison's Nobel Prizes are jacket-copy; they don't resonate deeply in the society from which our freshman arrive. Typical Core students at this university are bright, eager, and articulate. I'm guessing that they have read a lot more than many of their peers at other schools, certainly more than at the large land-grant school where I did my graduate work. Here, a surprising number of freshmen have read Homer, enjoy Morrison's work, and know enough Shakespeare to get themselves in trouble. Many of them have not, however, acquired a habit of deep reading with these or other texts.

Getting them through the wrought-iron fence of the page is a difficult task. My approach to this is where I part company with the techno-curmudgeons. Synchronous conferences and other judicious uses of technology are having some effect in deepening students' engagement with printed works and, more importantly, intellectual discourse. To refuse these technologies leaves us in the pickle factory, preserved yet inert. To explore the judicious use of technology can be liberating. I feel this whenever a former student tells me that she has held on to some of the Core texts or comes in to recommend another book worth exploring. And I note, with contentment, that at least two books are not be sold back in large numbers: Morrison's Song of Solomon and Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. It's encouraging that both are, in part, texts about ways to survive in times of rapid, often unpleasant, changes.

Special thanks to the students in Core 101-102, who gave their permission to be quoted and who read drafts of this article. Chris Trible, UR English Master's Program, provided invaluable assistance coding the conference transcripts. His unbiased eye helped to reign in my enthusiasm. Dean David Leary, UR College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Hugh West, Director of the Core Course, made it possible for my sections of Core to be held in a computer lab.

Works Cited