Episode 418 – Sven Birkerts

Virtual Memories Show 418:
Sven Birkerts

“Rather than try to think of a book to write about, why don’t I try to think about where I am in the world, in my life, and my preoccupations, and see if an author announces him- or herself?”

Is it unhip to search for a meaningful pattern in life? Sven Birkerts rejoins the show to talk about his new book, Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: Bookmarked (IG Publishing), which explores time, memory, and those aforementioned meaningful patterns. We get into Sven’s history with Nabokov’s memoir, his own impulse toward memoir as he approached 50, and the challenge of writing about someone whose prose is as incandescent as Nabokov’s. We talk about larger questions of literary greatness, the nature of individuality in an age of distributed social networks, whether Nabokov’s best-known book will survive, and what other books and authors have become “unsafe” for undergrad readers. We also gab about packing one’s library, finding the perfect notebook, and what the post-pandemic world may look like. Give it a listen! And go read Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: Bookmarked!

“Rather than try to think of a book to write about, why don’t I try to think about where I am in the world, in my life, and my preoccupations, and see if an author announces him- or herself?”

“If you start to press down on Nabokov’s prose, that really begins to reveal that it’s not just, ‘Oh, that’s a nice sentence,’ but the sentence has an architecture, that many things come together to give it form and create that response.”

“Approaching 50, I isolated a very specific image that captured the impulse to memoir. Things no longer happened singly, for themselves; they resonated against things in the past. . . . Approaching 70, I’m more interested in memory, but I’m hardly interested in anything that happened after 50.”

“I believe if you find the absolute right paper and notebook, and pen, anyone can become Tolstoy. It’s just a matter of those two things.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Sven Birkerts has been co-editor of the literary magazine AGNI since July 2002. Among his previous books are Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age; The Other Walk; Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again; Reading Life: Books for the Ages; American Energies: Essays on Fiction; The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age; Readings; and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays. He was the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars from 2007-2017 and has been a member of the core faculty since its founding in 1994. His new book is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: Bookmarked.

Follow Sven on Twitter and Instagram.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Sven by Mara Birkerts, photo of typerwriter & such by Sven. It’s on my instagram.

3 Replies to “Episode 418 – Sven Birkerts”

  1. I am over an hour into this and just realized I had Sven and Michael Maar confused somehow. Did you ever do a Maar podcast? I bought and read SPEAK, NABAKOV, I presume because I had heard about it though Gil Roth ….

  2. Aha! I see now that you ONCE did VM spot with Benjamin Ross who translated Maar’s SPEAK NABOKOV! That VM inspired me to buy that book which I ought to reread. I think I want to read Birkerts’ book too after rereading Nabokov …. great interview – surprised the Maar book did not come up in the conversation or maybe i missed it.

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