Sense and Semblance: The Implications of Virtuality

Sven Birkerts

There is now at the Boston Athenaeum, a place we might think of as the very cradle of bookishness in this country, an installation by Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon titled Bibliomancy.

The display is as unadorned and simple as can be. Entering the large, bare exhibition room, you see arrayed before you, singly, with wall space in between, fifty-four holograms of book spines. Approaching to inspect––and, of course, even the non-bibliophile is compelled to do so––you note various things: how the illusionism encompasses the spine and part of the top of each book, with the rest receding into apparent shadow; how the books themselves seem utterly miscellaneous, ranging from Voltaire Correspondance Général, Tome 8, to Pursuing the Whale by John A. Cook. You stand and look and try to ponder, by and by taking note of the images on the right and left walls––the outside faces of several old-style card catalog files, a sight every bit as familiar to most of us as that of the assorted spines. You stand a bit longer, waiting for some revelation to break over you, but it never does. At least not the sort that asks a swift intake of breath. But at some moment, likely, you get the point, and then indeed a shiver of displacement may travel through you: Yes, here you are, standing in a barren room, surrounded on all sides by tens of thousands of books, and you are suddenly––courtesy of holographic technology––able to see things at a slight remove, as if, historically speaking, you had just recently turned your back on a way of being and had taken a step away and were casting a last over-the-shoulder glance back.

A few years ago I wrote an essay called "The Fate of the Book," in which I tried to sort out the deeper differences between print and electronic-information cultures. The premise, which I still subscribe to, was that we are living through a watershed moment, a …
Birkerts, Sven, ‘Sense and Semblance: The Implications of Virtuality’, in Readings (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1999), p. 42 [excerpt]