In 1994, Sven Birkerts wrote Gutenberg Elegies, a collection of essays reflecting on reading in the then-forthcoming digital age.
Sixteen years later, Birkerts' subject has gotten only more relevant. Like music, books are leaving the world of physical objects for digital homes online and inside sophisticated new devices. Just last week, the world welcomed the iPad, whose iBooks app will join the Kindle and other e-reader technologies in reinventing how we read, and how we understand the medium of books.
Books are the subject of the Feb. 11 installment of Foreseeable Futures, this year's Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. Birkerts joins media blogger Maud Newton at the University of Pittsburgh lecture program to discuss what's next for writing and reading.
"It used to be that content went onto a page, the pages were bound and the book got sold," says Birkerts, a critic and reviewer for publications like The New York Times, Esquire and The Atlantic. "We're used to seeing reading as a purely textual experience. I think we're going to be seeing some strange and interesting hybrids."
Birkerts believes digital books, with supplementary sound and video, will make reading a multimedia experience, while the paper book, lacking in bells and whistles, will become merely "a weird artifact."
But how we read (and what we expect) on a screen differs from how we approach a print book. Birkerts, who admits to being a bit of a Luddite, feels awkward about the shift. After years of Internet inundation, the screen has become home to quick, fleeting and very visual information; moving long-format writing to the screen will demand more involvement from users, he says.
By contrast, Newton -- whose writing and opinions have appeared on NPR, in The New York Times and The Boston Globe -- enjoys e-reading. "I can't help it, I'm excited about iPad," she says. "To me, dedicated e-readers like the Kindle make books seem rarefied and inaccessible, whereas popular multifunctional devices like iPhone -- and, soon, in larger format, iPad -- make e-books available to millions of potential readers, who can purchase what they want, here and there."
Newton isn't nervous about her reading behavior, either. "As Toni Morrison observed in her endorsement of the Kindle, reading novels means entering another world. When I'm fully immersed, I don't focus on the pages, or how I move between them, but on the story itself," Newton says.
So don't fret, book-lovers. While change is imminent, "books will persist," Newton assures. "Stories will persist. Exactly what form they will take, we can't know."
"The Future of the Book" discussion with Sven Birkerts and Maud Newton 8:30 p.m. Thu., Feb. 11. Frick Fine Arts Auditiorium, Schenley Drive, Oakland. Free. 412-624-6506 or www.english.pitt.edu.