cover image Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age

Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age

Sven Birkerts. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-55597-721-4

In this anxious and rapturous book of essays, all previously published in literary magazines, Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies) posits the decline of “literary reading” and argues that the importance of the individual—the subjective “I” so central to Enlightenment culture—diminishes along with it. For Birkerts, the value in reading imaginative writing (fiction, poetry, even certain essays) doesn’t lie in the accumulation of plots or perspectives, but the exercise of empathetic attention. Increasingly sophisticated technologies, he fears, are irreversibly rewiring our brains in such a way that dissolves contemplation in the acid anxiety of the Internet’s endless possibility—the daily news cycle, social media, instant entertainment, and the knowledge that with your smartphone you can reach and be reached at any time. The present (not to mention the future) is more like Jorge Luis Borges’s vertiginous “library of Babel” than the rosy prognostications of the “digerati,” as Birkerts calls tech entrepreneurs, journalists, digital librarians, and (groan) young people. Birkerts has a knack for vividly conveying the phenomenology of reading fiction, and, drawing on the work of the Romantics, is convincing on the topic of its moral value. At the same time, he might do well to show he knows that reading novels was not so long ago condescended to as an unserious, even morally hazardous, activity. (Oct.)