Birkerts, Sven 1951–

views updated

Birkerts, Sven 1951–

PERSONAL: Born September 21, 1951, in Pontiac, MI; son of Gunnar G. (an architect) and Sylvia (Zvirbulis) Birkerts; married Lynn Focht (a psychotherapist), August 23, 1985; children: two. Education: University of Michigan, B.A., 1973.

ADDRESSES: Home—67 Dothan St., Arlington, MA 02174. Office—CAS Agni Review, 236 Bay State Rd., Boston, MA 02215 (Charles River Campus). Agent—Helen F. Pratt, 1165 5th Ave., New York, NY 10029.

CAREER: Literary critic, writer, and educator. Bookstore clerk, Ann Arbor, MI, and Cambridge, MA, 1973–83; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, lecturer in expository writing, 1984–91; Agni Review, Boston, MA, editor, 2002–; Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, lecturer; Bennington Writing Seminars, Bennington, MA, core faculty member. Also taught writing at Emerson College, Boston, MA, and Amherst College, Amherst, MA.

MEMBER: PEN (member of executive board), National Book Critics Circle.

AWARDS, HONORS: Citation for excellence in reviewing, National Book Critics Circle, 1986; Spielvogel-Diamondstein Citation, PEN, 1990, for The Electric Life; Reader's Digest-Lila Wallace Foundation grant, 1991; Guggenheim Foundation grant.


An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.

The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry, Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.

(With Donald Hall) Writing Well, 7th edition, Harper (New York, NY), 1991.

American Energies: Essays on Fiction, Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.

The Longwood Introduction to Fiction, Allyn & Bacon (Boston, MA), 1992.

Literature: The Evolving Canon, Allyn & Bacon (Boston, MA), 1993.

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Faber (Boston, MA), 1994.

(Editor) Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1996.

Readings (essays), Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1999.

My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (memoir), Viking (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributing editor to Boston Review, 1988–, and Agni Review, 1988–. Regular contributor to periodicals, including New Republic, New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Washington Post, Atlantic, Parnassus, Yale Review, and Mirabella.

SIDELIGHTS: "Sven Birkerts is an amateur literary critic. He says so himself," wrote Jack Fuller in Chicago's Tribune Books. "If so, then what literature needs is more so-called amateurs like Birkerts, whose love of reading, grace of expression and humane intelligence show in every one of the essays collected in [An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature.]" Birkerts considers himself an amateur because he was not formally trained in criticism and does not approach literature exercising any particular academic theory. "I can't, as a reader, make peace with any discipline that promotes its own interests over those of the text in question," Birkerts explained. "It may be that an insistence on the primacy of the work is what defines the amateur." Known for arguing his positions with passion, clarity, and intelligence, Birkerts both provokes and welcomes debate of his ideas. Donald Hall declared in the New York Times Book Review, "Reading him, we celebrate the arrival of a new critic prepared to direct us and to argue with us."

Birkerts's breadth of knowledge, attained through extensive reading, qualifies him to comment on European, Russian, and Latin American literature. Though he received a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Michigan, Birkerts has said that his voracious reading began not at college, but while he was employed as a bookstore clerk. "I chewed my sandwich with an open book in my lap," commented the critic, as quoted by Hall. Hall describes Birkerts as "above all a reader, even a book lover, without the props of pipe and tweed that once characterized these roles."

After his critical essays became widely published in periodicals like the New Republic and the Boston Review, Harvard University invited Birkerts to join the faculty as a lecturer in expository writing. Birkerts's essays, brought together for the first time in An Artificial Wilderness in 1987, draw to readers' attention overlooked authors—many German, Russian, or French writers with translated works—whom Birkerts believes deserve to be read. He not only proclaimed the merits of well-known authors, including Heinrich Boll, Marguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, and Jorge Luis Borges, but critiqued and recommended such lesser-known writers as Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, Thomas Bernhard, and Erich Heller. Some critics—those who feel that translations often fail to replicate the quality of works in the original language—have faulted Birkerts for disregarding problems inherent in reviewing translated works. Birkerts, for his part, cannot understand those who would deny themselves great literature because they refuse to read translations.

Birkerts's regard for foreign authors has also led some critics to complain that he neglects worthy American writers. Fuller suggested that Birkerts gravitates toward European authors because they attempt to make sense of tragic events in modern history, an important consideration for Birkerts. Also, their style of writing appeals to him. Opposing popular literary trends like minimalism, Birkerts prefers a more traditional richness, depth, and description in a text, characteristics found perhaps more often in European writings. "Most of us, I suspect, now balk when confronted with a page of fashionably lean prose," Birkerts told Fuller.

Birkerts believes that the spare, limited language found in much of modern fiction is also common to everyday speech, an idea he elaborated in his second book, The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry. The title is taken from British romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's A Defence of Poetry, written in 1821. In that work, as Paul Breslin of Chicago's Tribune Books noted, Shelley referred to the "electric life that burns" within the words of the great poets of his time. In Birkerts's modern-day defense of poetry, he contends that the growing emphasis on visual rather than printed media—and the American habit of spending a greater amount of time watching television and less time reading—deadens our culture and diminishes variety of expression in our language. In the words of Breslin, Birkerts "arrives at the unexpected conclusion that common speech, which has long provided an antidote to literary mannerism, may have lost its vitality, leaving the poet with the choice between affectation and dullness." Birkerts argues that poetry, even if ignored by the majority of the public, has power. In Breslin's opinion, The Electric Life "has much to say to an experienced reader of poetry, but it is accessible enough to be of use to anyone who is at all curious about the subject." Michael Greenstein of the Toronto Globe and Mail decided that together Birkerts's two essay collections provide "a significant reintroduction to many of the neglected masterpieces of our century."

In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Birkerts laments the demise of the book as the principal vessel for the transmission and preservation of human thought and culture. According to Birkerts, the proliferation of rapid, computerized information technologies such as the Internet, CD ROM, and electronic mail facilitate superior lateral connectedness, but at the expense of increased superficiality and diminished understanding. As Andy Solomon wrote in Tribune Books: "Herded by electronic impulses and fiber optics into a global mass, what we most disastrously risk losing, Birkerts fears, is what books provided: the opportunity to read, pause, reflect, reread, memorize, reflect some more." Washington Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley cited "the erosion of language, the loss of historical memory and the disappearance of the private self" among Birkerts's primary concerns. Though dismissing elements of Luddite alarmism and sentimentality in The Gutenberg Elegies, New York Times Book Review contributor Bernard Sharratt wrote: "The core, and persuasive achievement, of the book is Mr. Birkerts's attempt to capture the central experience of reading he fears may soon be lost."

Birkerts told CA: "My major interest is to explore the implications upon poetry and fiction of our radically altered historical circumstance, most specifically in the question of the survival of print-based literary and cultural values in an age of electronic communications."

In Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse, Birkerts continues his literary interests. The book features a group of essays by writers responding to Birkerts's musings on books and the electronic age in the The Gutenberg Elegies. Tolstoy's Dictaphone includes nineteen writers commenting about everything from the relatively recent innovations of personal computers and the Internet to longtime technological developments such as the telephone to the manual typewriter of old. "Most of these essays present more than an argument for or against the encroaching technology," wrote Paul L. Maliszewski in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman called the book a "potent collection of essays, rants, and musings."

Birkerts presents another collection of his own essays in Readings. Once again he writes about the electronic age and its impact on communication and reading. The author also probes various authors and their works, including Rilke, Don Delillo, and Seamus Heaney. In a review of Readings in Publishers Weekly, a contributor noted the author's "crisp, lucid prose and his immense sensitivity to literature." Writing in Booklist, Frank Caso noted that the author "is a joy to read." Julia Burch, commenting in the Library Journal, called many of the short essays "engaging and well-written."

Birkerts turns his attention inwards with his memoir My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. In the book, the author presents a series of essays about his immigrant family from Latvia and his childhood growing up in the suburbs of Detroit. He delves into his rebellion against his authoritarian father and recounts his college days and his diverse relationships, revealing that he suffered from depression and wanted to be a fiction writer. He also describes his days work-ing as a bookseller and his final realization that his true gift was as a literary critic. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that many literary memoirs have appeared in bookstores but noted that the author takes the genre and "makes it fresh, compelling and well worth another trip." In a review in the Library Journal, Mark Bay wrote that the author "offers a splendidly crafted set of essays."



Birkerts, Sven, An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.

Birkerts, Sven, My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.

Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 29, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Booklist, September 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse, p. 191; February 1, 1999, Frank Caso, review of Readings, p. 946; November 15, 2001, Molly Mc-Quade, "Reluctant Critic," profile of author, p. 541; August, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of My Sky Trades, p. 1910.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 8, 1989, Michael Greenstein, review of The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry.

Houston Chronicle, September 20, 2002, Logan Browning, review of My Sky Blue Trades.

Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2002, review of My Sky Blue Trades, p. 850.

Library Journal, February 15, 1999, Julia Burch, review of Readings, p. 149; August, 2002, Mark Bay, review of My Sky Blue Trades, p. 108.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 19, 1995, review of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, p. 11; December 1, 1996, review of Tolstoy's Dictaphone, p. 4.

New Republic, May 22, 1995, Jay Tolson, review of The Gutenberg Elegies, p. 40.

New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1987, Donald Hall, review of An Artificial Wilderness, p. 16; December 18, 1994, Bernard Sharratt, review of The Gutenberg Elegies, p. 14; September 15, 2002, Nicholas A. Basbanes, review of My Sky Blue Trades, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly, December 12, 1994, review of The Gutenberg Elegies, p. 58; July 8, 1996, review of Tolstoy's Dictaphone, p. 78; January 18, 1999, review of Readings, p. 320; June 24, 2002, review of My Sky Blue Trades, p. 50.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1997, Paul L. Maliszewski, review of Tolstoy's Dictaphone, p. 192.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN), August 25, 2002, David Walton, review of My Sky Blue Trades.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 27, 1987, Jack Fuller, review of An Artificial Wilderness, p. 3; February 5, 1989, Paul Breslin, review of The Electric Life, p. 6; January 29, 1995, Andy Solomon review of The Gutenberg Elegies, p. 4.

Washington Post Book World, September 27, 1987, review of An Artificial Wilderness; December 11, 1994, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Gutenberg Elegies, p. 3.

World Literature Today, summer, 1988, review of An Artificial Wilderness, p. 515; autumn, 1999, John L. Brown, review of Readings, p. 831.


Agni Review, (January 6, 2006), brief biography of writer., (August 28, 2003), Robert Finn, review of My Sky Blue Trades.

Onion A.V. Club, (January 29, 2003), Andy Battaglia, review of My Sky Blue Trades.