The Fate of Reading in a Digital Age: A Conversation with Sven Birkerts

Interview with Sven Birkerts
Thinking in Public
May 31, 2011
(This is a rush transcript.  This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)
Mohler:    This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

I first saw the book fifteen years ago when it was released.  The title immediately caught my attention The Gutenberg Elegies.  The subtitle was The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.  Now that was 1996.  The electronic age then was, it seemed, just dawning with especially the advent of the world wide web, with the internet, and with all kinds of new digital opportunities.  Nicholas Negroponte at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology media lab was talking about the shift from atoms to bits.  But little did we know that just fifteen years after the publication of this book, would report that it’s selling more electronic books than printed books.  It turned out that The Gutenberg Elegies was a bit more prophetic than even its author could almost surely have understood.

Sven Birkerts was born in Pontiac, Michigan into a family of Lathian immigrants.  He attended the University of Michigan and had his early introduction to books first by reading and then by serving as a bookseller.  He later became a writer, an editor, and he now directs the Bennington Writing Seminars.  Sven Birkerts welcome to Thinking In Public.

Birkerts:    Well, thank you.

Mohler:    Back in 1996 Sven Birkerts wrote a book entitled The Gutenberg Elegies.  The subtitle of the book is The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.  In his introduction, he said this, “suddenly it feels like everything is poised for change.  The slower world that many of us grew up with dwindles in the rear view mirror.  The stable hierarchies of the printed page, one of the defining norms of that world are being superseded by the rush of impulses through freshly minted circuits.  The displacement of the page by the screen is not yet total as evidenced by the book you are holding.  It may never be total but the large scale tendencies that the direction has to be obvious to anyone who looks.  Now Sven Birkerts you wrote that back in 1996.  That really was on the other side of this great digital revolution.  How did you see that coming?

Birkerts:    Well, I think I actually have been watching for it in a sense because even before I began writing about things digital and computer screens I was already beginning to get fascinated I think some years before by this sort of growing omnipresence of the other screens of TV screens.  And actually had a kind of television epiphany which I think was an early forerunner of my thinking which I was out walking one night.  Being in place where I got to a hilltop and was able to look out over a whole sort of panorama of houses in the night, and I was just suddenly struck that all I was seeing were these pulsing blue lights everywhere I looked.  I think I began to get the idea that something big was beginning to happen in terms of where we put our attention and how we live our sort of lives.  Our away from work lives and then of course the computer revolution happened very rapidly on the heels of that and that just seemed to pick that up and run away with it.  And to my mind has continued in the sense beyond anything I was forecasting.  I think I had heard a statistic, some advertisement actually saying that very shortly there will be over five billion digital devices on planet earth or something like that.  And you know you get to a point where the implications can’t be resisted.  You really have to start thinking.

Mohler:Yeah, I want us to think about that in just a moment.  I have to tell you that in a deeply ironic act in preparation for this conversation I had a copy of The Gutenberg Elegies transferred electronically and effortlessly to my i-pad and the Kindle app.   And I actually had the experience of reading what you wrote there on an electronic screen which has to be highly ironic, something that you certainly did not quite foresee when you wrote those words in 1996.  But you know I find you to be one of the most…and observant writers about the fate of reading in the digital age or even in the modern age.  Let me back up for a moment and just ask you: how fundamental do you think reading is to the experience of being human?

Birkerts:    Well, I think that’s going to depend on the nature of the temperament.  I think
most of the world through most of history, we can safely say has gotten on with its business without reading.  I suppose what I’m concerned with is that segment of humanity that also looks towards any sort of self reflective or contemplative living, and I think there it is almost fundamental.  Not that you cannot have contemplation without the presence or you know experience of books, I think they’ve gone hand in hand since books began to be written so deeply enmeshed.

Mohler:    Well, the book as you make very clear is one of those stable realities we’re familiar with it.  It’s made up of material we can hold in our hands.  And there is tremendous weight in the apparent weightlessness of these characters in ink.  But we enter different worlds by means of that reading and we enter a process of discovering ourselves.  In one of your more recent works you talk about re-reading books and the experience of discovering that you’re a different self than you were the first time you read a book.  There’s something that’s just intrinsic, I think, to the process of reading that we’re entering into a conversation with other minds and in a way that is indeed privileged over the other kinds of conversations we can have.  It has a permanence other conversations do not have.  It has an objectivity a tangibility and lacking that we’re really left with a very impoverished civilization: are we not?

Birkerts:    Well, I would certainly argue for that yeah.  So I’m always trying to anticipate the counter argument which are many and various attempts to the fact that I seem to always be talking about the one kind of reading which is immersed, reflective, focused reading of a traditional sort.  And the argument that is really being made on all fronts by people and by the technology itself is the nature of reading is changing.  That you know sort of unidirectional focus and attention of that sort are no longer the necessary norm that many people their experience of “reading” is much more lateral it’s much more multi-tasking in a sense.  It moves very quickly between clusters of kinds of information which I really want to differentiate that experience, that kind of you know quick reflex harvesting of stimulus and data from what I’m talking about which is literary reading really.  The entering into sort of the sensibility of an author by way of that author’s language which requires focused patience, attention.  It requires kind of a context that is built and expanded and is really on the opposite extreme of what happens when we spend some time rapidly moving across links and sites on our screen.  Even though we are technically taking in information with our eyes and reading in a way.

Mohler:    Now, I think it’s very important that you distinguish between different kinds of reading.  Deep into your book The Gutenberg Elegies you write, “we don’t just read the words; we dreams our lives in their vicinities” speaking of the kind of reading that produces the kind of words you’re speaking of there.  “The printed page becomes a kind of wrought iron fence we crawl through returning once we have wandered into the very place we started.  Deep listening to words is rarely an option.  Our ear and with our whole imaginative apparatus marches in lock step to the speaker’s baton.”  So there’s a difference between just receiving words by hearing and the experience of reading.  And then with the experience of reading you differentiate between a kind of a superficial reading which is gathering data.  And what you in The Gutenberg Elegies called deep reading.

Birkerts:    Right.  And I suppose hand in hand with that and I know somewhere in there I build on this distinction too and it’s, I suppose, I invoke another kind of time in a way which to me is the time that reading creates is necessary in order for that reading to happen and that has often been called duration time by you know philosophers over time.  That’s the time which steps away from the notion of the awareness of the linear chronological succession of moments that become the kind of immersed.  It’s a time to forget that time is passing.  It’s a time of immersion.  And my argument and this would extend beyond just reading, but I think it is the time in which all kinds of art forms happen.  I think when we stand in front of a painting and contemplate it, we’ve stepped away from one grid of time and we’re in a contemplative time which is very comparable to the subjective space we’re in when we read.  I think if we’re listening to music in a deep sort of attentive way something similar happens.  So, I think it’s a feature of kind of something available to consciousness which I think is essential and that’s what I think is being endangered out in our world.  The erosion of that kind of attentiveness and even of our own ability to stay with something.

Mohler:    Early in your book you write about the experience and this was also early in your life when you were kind of estimating the value of libraries to buy for a second hand bookstore.  As I recall, you tell about going to a man who was going to sell his library, and it turned out he was a college professor who had somehow left his profession or lost his job, and he invited you in to purchase his entire collection of books a rather massive and very significant collection of books.  And instead he showed you as I recall in his basement a personal computer which was then a very new thing.

Birkerts:    Yes.

Mohler:    And he said this is the future.  I have to tell you that is one of the most haunting stories about books and reading I’ve read in a very long time.

Birkerts:    Yeah and that really did happen.  It’s funny how it’s a kind of updated analogy or counterpart to the fairly well known moment.  I think it’s in a novel of  Victor Hugos where two people are standing and in the vistas the cathedral and the other person is holding a book in his hand and he lifts the book and says this will destroy that eventually.  I guess standing for enlightenment thinking as opposed to the old age of faith or whatever but kind of that notion of one thing entirely historically superseding another which mercifully hasn’t happened which is also part of the story I suppose.  You know the man sold his books to use his computer, but he was only partly right.  We’re still here.

Mohler:    And we still read books, at least some people do.  And it is yet a different experience.  The way I expressed this just the other day is that the experience of reading a book now is a choice in a way it wasn’t before.  It is a choice among other options that are preferable to many people in this society who still think themselves well informed and even thoughtful.  To read a book or a certain kind of book is a kind of rebellion these days in a way that it wasn’t.  And speaking even to some college students recently, I come to understand that they are not required to read even as much or certainly in terms of as much weight as I think previous generations were.  So it is an act I think requires more intentionality now.  Do you agree?

Birkerts:    I completely agree.  I do as also a father of a high school boy who I’m constantly amazed as I sort of check in and see what’s going on in school and what is being asked of him and what are the attitudes.  And I think a lot of it has to do with an availability of not only entertainment options but information options.  I mean there’s not a lot of choice when I was, you know thirteen or fourteen year old kid, with a lot of time on my hands.  You know we still had maybe three channels running on T.V. with that much on and there certainly wasn’t a whole culture of interactive gaming.  You know books stood in a different context of possibility which doesn’t mean that everyone read, but it made it far more likely that one would in a kind of stray moment of downtime reach from something and get absorbed in it. And I think that of course still possibilities, the possibility never goes away but the cultural circumstance and the likelihood of that hasn’t changed, diminished considerably I think.

Mohler:    Sven Birkherts makes the very compelling point that there is a distinction between reading a book that is the printed page and observing a screen.  Now people will immediately retort; well that’s reading too.  Well, as Sven Birkherts points out it’s reading alright, but it’s not the same kind of reading.  It’s not the same experience of reading.  There are certain things that can be read adequately perhaps even well maybe even preferably on electronic screen. But when it comes to certain kinds of reading, what he calls deep reading, well that takes the encounter with a book that generally means the printed page something with covers you hold in the hand, and turn at your leisure, and reflect upon just with the technology of ink on paper.

Back in 1996 you wrote I think with incredible foresight about what the French philosopher Jacques Ellul called the technological imperative.  Once that technology exists it virtually demands to be used.  And in the latter section of The Gutenberg Elegies you wrote this, “I think then in terms of a face off, a struggle, a war, but it is to a large degree a war inside myself.  In the larger societal sphere, there is no great contest.  We already know that technological ingenuity will set the agenda that Americans never that deeply entrenched in tradition will follow.  We are accustomed to taking up interesting offers.  And the nature of the whole electronic system is such that recalcitrance is discouraged.   Think of the incursion of the tele-technologies phone and T.V. and more recently the telephone answering machine.  Our society exerts pressure that makes it very hard not to play the game.  The game underway now is a game called on-line and bitter as it is to say I’m still on the platform watching the dance of the candy wrappers.”

You know I read that, and I thought back in 1996, the technological imperative was already clear with a telephone answering machine.  Now that seems almost quaint.  You know I carry more..

Birkerts:    I know when you read that I had that same reaction, found it quaint.

Mohler:    But quaint in a prophetic kind of way.  I mean we probably carry around with our smart phone more computing power than the Apollos space missions had.  And here we are writing about how even the telephone and the television have distanced us from the act of reading. Now what I want to get to is this: you concluded The Gutenberg Elegies with two pretty famous words who read your work back then.  Speaking against the challenge of technology even after all the very honest things you said in the book, you just closed more or less with two words: refuse it.  And then when you updated the book and wrote a new introduction and afterward about ten years later you came back and you kind of revised “refuse it” in a bit more nuanced way to say more or less it falls to us individually one by one to decide how we will face up to the seduction of the new.  How much of it to use, how much of it to refuse.  So looking at it now how much should we refuse?

Birkerts:    That is such an interesting question, and I cannot speak for everyone.  I can speak for myself.  I am even more aware than I was when I wrote that revised preface.  The pressure of that on my daily life, I am looking back…our society makes it very difficult to refuse certain offers.  In fact I don’t have a cell phone.  I’ve decided for instance that whole array of…and applications is one I want to pass on.  It doesn’t mean that the people in my family and around me don’t do that, but for me I’m not doing it out of sheer…I will use the computer, I go on-line, I e-mail, but it’s a choice about the incursions on my inner life and my capacity for attention and my disinclinations of being distracted.  And so I’m always building fence lines those that fit my needs.  And I imagine every single person has a different set of priorities.  I need a certain kind of time, and I need a certain amount of it.  And I need to do what I can to resist those things that are going to carve it away.  And I’m all too aware of how subtly and deviously these appliances can do that.  Even just carrying it around as a kind of something potential buzzing in your pocket; it creates a different mentality.

Mohler:    It also creates expectations.  People, they clearly expect you to return e-mails and to see their text messages, and to return their telephone calls or at least listen to their voicemails.  When I consider my life as compared to where it was thirty years ago by the time I graduated from college; I have a lot less time.  Even before you consider the professional responsibilities and all the rest that is coming with marriage, and children, and all the rest, I just have less time because of the electronic world I live in.

Birkerts:    Absolutely. I would just supplement what I just said also that on the one hand for me again, I’m speaking out of my set of objective needs, but on the one front it’s a matter of trying to keep things at bay at a certain distance.  But it’s the other I find that I have to be slightly more purposeful about getting on with that thing that I know is at the core of my life which is let’s say reading, and thinking, and immersing myself in a certain kind of contemplative world which books represent to me.  I have to undertake that with a certain decisiveness.  I have to say okay now I’m going to do this.  I know that when I do it I’m happy.  So therefore it’s not merely that I’m going to wait to see what happens, but I’m going to actively pursue it because I feel that when I do it, it is charging a battery that I need to keep charged in a specific way so that I can order what I feel are my own priorities.

Mohler:    Books make me happy and even reading your own biographical revelations that you make and your own interaction with reading.  I resonate with so much of it all the way back to some of the early things you read which I also read at about the same age and had the same kind of experience.  Also the same experience by the way in discovering that one’s son does not necessarily share one’s own literary taste at the same stage in life.  But you know books makes me happy.  I’m surrounded by books.  I come alive in bookstores and libraries.  I love the experience of reading.  I never had to be forced to read.  I find great exhilaration, great restoration, and all of that in reading.  But I say all that to say that if I sit at my desk where there is a computer and a mouse, I’m distracted.  I have to read in a place where I am physically distant from the technologies or they are calling out to me.  That technological imperative that Ellul spoke of is there saying use me, check me, something’s new, someone’s written you, there’s an e-mail you need to answer.  Or, what I found even last night as I was reviewing again some of my notes I made back in 1996 on The Gutenberg Elegies you made some references to some things and my first instinct was to go Google and look up the article, check the source, and I realized that’s not what I’m doing.  I’m playing the game I’m falling prey to the very thing I’m trying to resist.  So I have to get geographically separate, physically separate from those things.

Birkerts:    Oh no, I do too, and I’m glad you said that.  There’s a literal and physical demarcation, and I think this is the nature of all of these particular technologies is that they are genius and they are sort of whatever the opposite, the negative side is that they create a psychological sensation of potentiality which I think is in fact addictive to us.  And I think it’s very odd to have an experience for whatever reason where you abruptly leave the 21st century glowing environment and whatever go into the woods for a day or leave, or just are away from it.  There is an almost, it’s almost physical.  The withdrawal that has happened is the switch of all that sense of humanist information.  Sort of living in an environment which is constantly feeding you the next thing and then you step out into the night and there really is no next thing.  There’s this, you know, the night, there are the trees.  It’s a real psychological ledge.

Mohler:    Let me ask you to turn if you will from the experience of reading to the experience of writing.  You began as a lover of books by reading.  You talk about reading especially your mother’s books as she had kind of stocked her own book cases in the house.  And I love the part because I so associate with this where you ask as kind of a middle schooler to be dropped off in order that you can read in the bookstore while your mom went shopping.  I raise my hand—me too.  And so I experience all of that and yet at some point you made the transition from reader to writer.  How did that happen?

Birkerts:    Well I think there is, I think the writing impulse is present very early.  I think the two are braided together often and I think it has something to do possibly with that quality of what we were talking about.  You actually hear what you’re reading what T.S. Elliott called the auditory imagination.  If you spend enough time with books that becomes your suggestive climate in a way.  You are hearing a sound of very often an author’s language.  But I think it is also the sound of your own thinking.  Your experience turning into language, and there is a great pressure to emulate and to expend the pleasure to do some of that which is so appealing.  I mean just like when you hear enough music you want to make music.  It’s kind of a turn around, and I think it’s an extension of when the inter-imaginative life becomes active enough it needs great outlet.  So for me it was interesting though because what so compelled me as a reader for a very long time was moving into the world of novels.  A novel to me was an alternate experience and that became the thing that I wanted to be able to do as well. I wanted to create those times of environments of psychological places.  And I say I gave a good ten years of my first years of writing to writing fiction which didn’t pan out for me for various reasons.  What happened is that I discovered that I also could use language in another way and that was to write about things that I was so moved by, by other people.  I became essentially an essayist and literary critic.

Mohler:    Well in your book you make a very interesting comment about the shift even in book sales from fiction and literature to non-fiction and memoir.  And there is no doubt that’s happened.  And you know I reflect on something else.  People ask me for book recommendations all the time.  And I find I can very easily recommend non-fiction, very easily recommend biography and memoir.  I find it more difficult to recommend literature because the story is not a stable thing.

Birkerts:    Right.

Mohler:    I finally determined the difficulty in recommending a novel is that a person may rate it in an entirely different way.  This novel was for me; it is.

Birkerts:    I think you have to make a judgment about that person’s imaginative needs and capacities.  I mean I love doing that when it connects with nothing more gratifying than putting the right book into the right, the right novel into the right person’s hands and having them come back and say I can’t believe how much I loved that book because you made a call in a sense about what you know of the novel and about what you know of them.  You brought two people together.  It’s like you’re a matchmaker.  It often fails too.  The person comes back and says I couldn’t get into it. But there is something very gratifying to me it speaks to kind of a imaginative, psychological continuum not only between individual book and reader but between readers plural and books plural, and the fact that there’s a great deal of active traffic that goes on which is really separate people and separate places moving along in an imaginative continuum which is fascinating to just think about.

Mohler:    Looking to the future back in 1996 you wrote with an incredible insight about what was coming, and you said you wrote it on a sense of what you described as a personal emergency.  You saw the fate of reading and the fate of the book in an electronic age to be something of an emergency.  Ten years later you updated it and I think in a very sobering and honest way. But now we’re in 2011 we’re fifteen years after the publication of The Gutenberg Elegies.  We have now grown accustomed to technologies that were not even dreamt of in 1996.  So what do you see as the fate of reading and the fate of books and that against the background of the fact I have to tell you I subscribe to the twitter feed for Publishers Weekly which is itself something of an irony.  But tweet after tweet tends to come from Publishers Weekly saying this independent bookstore is closed; this publisher has declared bankruptcy.  At the same time, there will be six tweets that come later saying this publishing house just signed this author for this new blockbuster book.  So it seems to be kind of a double edged thing.  I want to know what you see looking into the future.

Birkerts:    Well, I can list off a few things that I see.  One I think it’s reading itself and the kind of reading we’ve been talking about is powerful, and it’s not going to disappear.  I think it will possibly diminish and take its place among things that other people find they can get pleasure or edification from in another form.  But I think it will further lose its former cultural supremacy, but I don’t think it will disappear.  I think it will remain the coin of the realm of a certain kind of temperaments.  I think there will be a very big question to see how because I do think we are pretty inevitably migrating increasingly toward you know the kindle and the i-pad kind of reading.  But even the reading of things, we traditionally read on paper how that will lay out.  I hope always that I’m wrong and that it turns out that this is the flourishing new way for the word to survive reading riding on the wings of a screen.  I think there’s an enormous threat to the kind of  reading that I think about which is a very short distance down the road.  I mean the minute reading has migrated into a digital context where it’s being read from the screen, the door is wide open to infiltrating the text with every application you can think of.  Click the button and see a picture of Shark Cathedral as you’re reading your novel about whatever.  Click the button and hear you know the strains of the Kreutzer Sonata while you’re reading Tolstoy.  I think it’s going to be very hard to stave off the commercial invasion of the literary text by adjacent media.

Mohler:    Even as now they are offering a discounted price to the kindle if you’ll accept a kindle that comes with advertising.  So you could have Tolstoy with advertising as well.  Sven Brikerts it’s been a real privilege to have this conversation.  Let me ask you what is your next project?  What are you working on in terms of writing right now?

Birkerts:    Well, I just have two days ago got the gallies for a forthcoming book that Graywolf Press is publishing in September called The Other Walk.  It’s a series of sort of autobiographical vignettes to really premise them how memory invades the daily life.  It’s something different.  There are shorter pieces.  They are very much drawn from the encounters of dailyness.  I think they’re lyric.  I hope they’re interesting.  And I definitely keep various notebooks going where I’m trying to make sense of the new order of things.  That hasn’t gone away.  I haven’t found sort of the next Gutenberg, but I’m constantly thinking about this.

Mohler:    Writing of your adolescence in your book Reading Life:  Books for the Ages you wrote this, “when I was near shelves of book I came alive almost as if I were picking up emanations.  I felt a sense of perspective, of scale, of a solace of the idea of generations as well as a great desire to do things on my own to achieve.”  I love those words.  I don’t want future generations to miss that.  I don’t think you do either.

Birkerts:    I certainly don’t.

Mohler:    I really enjoyed that conversation with Sven Birkerts who is not only an observer of reading and an analyst of the contemporary context, but he’s also a writer.  And he’s one who has seen many of our current realities with a very prophetic eye.  I can only wonder where we go from here.  If in the year 2011 more copies are being sold of certain books in electronic format than print, how long will it be before the printed book is something of an ancient artifact.  Well, I’m reassured by Sven Birkerts’ confidence that the book will continue.  I think he’s basically right, but I wonder if it’s going to continue and be preserved amongst an every decreasing number of persons whom the book is still important.

Just recently a group of researchers largely localized at the New York University School of Medicine considered the difference that a screen makes.  In other words, what’s the kind of attention that is required by listening into a classroom lecture, by reading a book, or by staring at a digital screen.  One of the interesting things they discovered is that many children and young people who have attention deficit problems don’t have a problem staring at a screen and the reality is that the screen is giving them immediate gratification, immediate rewards, there are changes in pattern, there is movement on the screen.  The child or the young person does not have to invest any kind of imagination in the task.  The screen is providing everything for them.  These researchers and pediatricians are beginning to wonder if the screen is not having a dramatic effect on the way that young people and for that matter, let’s just be honest many older people are having their brains taught to learn, and to think, and yes even to read.

That’s why the conversation with Sven Birkerts I think points to some basic issues that Christians need deeply to consider.  Literacy and attentiveness for Christians is not just something that is important for education; it’s something that is important for the soul. It’s not by accident that the Christian movement has from the very beginning been associated with books, with parchments, with writing.  It’s not by accident that the Christians throughout the ages preserve the learning, their devotion, and even the knowledge of the scripture plus the scripture itself by the process of copying down by hand these works especially the bible until there came the advent of the printing press. The printing press was the first great revolution in terms of the expansion of the matter of the book of the accessibility of printed material, or text with ink on page for the average human being.  The Gutenberg revolution meant that it was possible now for most persons to learn eventually by the means of actually having direct contact with a book the trained ability to read a book.  It’s hard to imagine the kind of technological leap that meant for human beings.  It means that rather than merely hearing or seeing at a distance now persons could hold the book in the hand.  This was for Christian an enormous advantage.  This was recognized by Martin Luther and John Calvin and others among the reformers who after all largely disseminated their message to the people by means of the printed word.  And of course it came with the conviction that the Bible, the very word of God, should be not only translated into the vernacular but published widely and made accessible so that it could also be in the hands quite proverbially of the plow boy as well as the preacher.  Well we’re in a situation now in which there is certainly a new revolution.  And this new revolution, the digital revolution, has brought many gains.  Many very serious and credible intellectual gains.  It’s not for nothing that we can now Google and find and discover an entire world of resources that would have taken weeks, or months, or years to determine in times past if that kind of search process could have been taken at all.  We now almost feel obligated to know things that previous generations would have found it almost impossible to know.  And to accumulate and systematically kind of process information that previous generations only saw fleetingly and at some distance.  But we do know that the screen does make a difference, that there is not just a basic equivalence between the screen and the book.  Now I’m the owner of a kindle, and I especially use a kindle app on an i-pad.  There are things I can read well and in terms of the stewardship of my reading can maximize by means of putting all these things onto the screen but no it’s not the same thing as reading a book.  A codex, a printed book with pages and covers there’s a different kind of engagement with that kind of technology.  There’s a different kind of reading that takes place.  When Sven Birkerts talks about the end of the stable hierarchies of the printed page, he’s talking about the fact that the text itself can become quickly indeterminate once it is on a screen and no longer on a printed page.  Now that may worry secular authors but it should certainly be a concern for those who love the word of God and who understand the importance of preserving the word and the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

There are many issues in this conversation that I found exhilarating.  First of all there’s just the celebration of reading.  The knowledge that we gain so much of our insight are prompted into so much of our most faithful thinking by means of engagement with the printed text.  Now this is not just the kind of luddite warning that suggests that we ought to have nothing to do with these new technologies.  I found very morally significant the fact that Sven Birkerts back in 1996 said just basically refuse it speaking of these new technologies. But in 2011 when the 15th anniversary of the book came along he said that we should instead be very careful stewards of this new kind of technology and to quote him he says, “it falls to us individually one by one to decide how we will face up to the seduction of the new.  How much of it to use, how much of it to refuse.”  Well, I will find even as I said in this conversation that I have to get away from the digital technologies often to do the kind of reading that is necessary for my soul, for my teaching, for my preaching, for my writing, the kind of reading that just has to take place when you’re in a chair with a good lamp and you’re able to read and think.  Able to turn a page at a leisure.  Quickly flip back.  I told someone the other day that one of the key issues for me is that if a book has footnotes, well it’s largely useless to me in terms of the screen.  I need to be able to make notes to engage the text.  Reading for me is something of a contact sport.  It’s not just about holding the book in the hands it’s about making annotations.  It’s about having an argument with an author.  Even as prominent in the context of the book in which I put a check mark here and an “x” mark there,it has to do with what I consider to be of interest.  I can go back to a book that I read twenty or thirty years ago and understand that the reader then who I was then saw certain words as particularly important certain passages as particularly meaningful and influential I may read it with a very different eye now.  It’s hard to have the same encounter with a digital screen but you know on the other hand I can’t travel around with a few hundred of my favorite books in my briefcase.  It just doesn’t work.  Well, it kind of does now on my i-pad or on my kindle or on the nook or some similar device.  There is gain here and of course it has to be weighed over against the stewardship of our responsibility as readers.  Here’s a word to parents: our children are not growing up in an age in which the book is the first option and the digital world the second.  To them the digital world is primary. We’re going to have to work hard for them to have the same kind of encounter with the printed book that we have known.  And if we’re going to preserve certain kinds of reading, we’re going to have to make that happen.  We’re going to have to seduce a generation into the Gutenberg age and of all things in our generation it might be one of the greatest challenges we face to introduce children to the magic of the book.

Thanks again to my guest Sven Birkerts for joining me today for Thinking In Public.  For more information go to my website at  You can follow me on Twitter by going to  For more information about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to  For information about Boyce College go to  Thanks for joining me for Thinking In Public.  Until next time keeping thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.