Sven Birkerts got his start as an expert appraiser of such European imports as Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, and Witold Gombrowicz. Yet he soon expanded his scope to literature of all stripes, and turned out to be a particularly pungent critic of American fiction. His thoughts on individual writers were invariably eloquent and refreshingly cant-free. But Birkerts also had a gift for cultural trend-spotting: his superb deflation of Gordon Lish and his acolytes was the high point of his first collection, An Artificial Wilderness. More recently, however, he has mutated into something of a gloom-and-doom specialist. First came The Gutenberg Elegies, in which Birkerts defended the printed word against all electronic comers (i.e., CD-ROMS, audiobooks, and the Internet). Then he edited an anthology of essays by like-minded technophobes--although to be fair, at least a few participants confessed to a secret online addiction.
Now Birkerts has published Readings, which resembles a greatest-hits package but is heavily skewed toward the author's Chicken Little side. In the first essay, for example, he ponders the "millennial warp"--his sense "that our old understandings of time--and, therefore, of life itself--are in many ways useless." "The Idea of the Internet" is a eulogy to the solitary self, soon to be engulfed by the "massive electronic nervous system" of the Net. It's not that these aren't provocative ideas. The problem is that when the author diverts his attention from a particular text, his customarily lucid prose can turn to sociological fudge. The good news, however, is that Readings does contain a generous helping of vintage Birkerts. There are shrewd and enlightening pieces on Rilke, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Don DeLillo, as well as such deep-focus delights as "When Lightning Strikes." And in an essay on Seamus Heaney's sonnet sequence "Clearances," Birkerts puts his finger on one of the primary rewards of literature: "Reading the end of the poem, I feel as though some obstacle in my own life has been removed." Even better, he conveys why--and a critic who can so eloquently analyze his own sense of elation is one we'd better listen to. --James Marcus [via]