I happened upon David Ulin’s book The Lost Art of Reading in the library last week and checked it out on a whim. It turns out that Stefanie has been reading the book as well, and she decided she liked the book very much. I have to admit that I began the book feeling very resistant to it and prepared to dislike it intensely. I also have to admit that as I sat down to read it, I was prepared to enjoy not liking it. I don’t like books that make sweeping generalizations about the way things are now, and that lament a lost glorious past and tell us our world is steadily getting worse. And surely a book with the title The Lost Art of Reading would do those things?
It did those things in places, but it turns out the book is much better than I thought. It steadily won me over, and by the end, I decided that I like Ulin’s way of thinking about things very much. He does worry about where our culture is headed, and he laments how much harder it is for him personally and for the culture at large to focus on reading in a deep, thoughtful way. We are too easily distracted by our laptops and our gadgets, too easily sidetracked by blogs and twitter, to be willing to sit down with a book for a lengthy stretch of time and to lose ourselves in it. He thinks there is something valuable about deep reading and how it encourages us to think carefully, to get to know ourselves better, to develop empathy for others, to bring us back to a sense of time and our place in it.
But at the same time, Ulin is not anti-technology. This gets at how the book won me over, because his argument is more complex than a simple dismissal of the internet. He sees the value in being able to look things up on Google; he has a Blackberry and loves it. He discusses Jennifer Egan’s new book A Visit From the Goon Squad (which I’m in the middle of right now and am enjoying it very much) and the cool things she does with multimedia in the book and on her website. He’s fascinated by the Facebook page for The Great Gatsby. He sees that technology can add to our experience of literature rather than merely spiriting us away from it. He wants to preserve the experience of reading but at the same time is willing to acknowledge that our ways of reading can change, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I also liked how he hinted at a spiritual element to reading, something I’ve been thinking about lately. He says that reading can be like meditation, a way to practice focus and calm and to get out of our own minds for a while:
What does it mean, this notion of slow reading? Most fundamentally, it returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. Even more, we are reminded of the need to savor — this instant, this scene, this line.
I’ve often felt that if I don’t get the chance to read, at least a little bit, every day or almost every day, that I start to lose a sense of myself. I feel scattered. Taking the time to read helps me pull myself back together again, somehow. It’s partly the simple act of sitting quietly that does it, but also the discipline of following someone else’s thought, focusing on someone else’s experiences or arguments. I’m not sure what kind of person I would be without reading, so in spite of all my doubts, it was a pleasure to read Ulin contemplate what reading has done for him.