The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time
by David L. Ulin
Reviewed by Kevin Smokler
When you see the title of David L. Ulin's new book-length essay, how do you feel? Like thrusting a fist into the air? Telling the author to come off it? Or do you respond with slow nod and a "go on, please"? It's clear about midway into this endeavor (expanded from the original Los Angeles Times piece of the same name published last summer) that Ulin wants to slow dance with the third response. But it's his cognizance of the seduction and perils of the first two reactions that makes it work, and positions Ulin's quiet, levelheaded argument for reading among the most compelling of this loud, divided time in literary culture.
"Loud and divided" is our sad starting point because lately it seems you cannot discuss reading and its place in our lives without the conversation descending into a joust between cultural prejudices. Horse #1: Books and literature pushed into the sea of irrelevancy by dumber, digital distractions. Horse #2: The inevitable march of time and progress and a disdain for sentimental heel dragging. Clash, bruise, KindleNookiPads, Repeat.
Ulin understands both sides but suggests we can go deeper and do better by first looking at ourselves. The Lost Art of Reading is framed by an ongoing dialogue with his fifteen-year-old son, Noah, who gets assigned The Great Gatsby for school. Noah hates underlining key passages (complaining, rightly, "It would be so much easier if they'd let me read it.") and would rather be doing something else with his time. In a moment of both frustration and baiting, he tells his book critic father, "This is why reading is over.... Nobody wants to do it anymore."
Ulin has heard this before, of course -- at work, from interviewers, and in civic debate. Now he decides to reread Gatsby and use it as an awl to pry open some uncomfortable questions: "How do things stick to us in a culture where information and ideas flare up so quickly that we have no time to assess one before another takes its place? How does reading maintain its hold on our imagination, or is that question even worth asking anymore?"
It's an awkward place all 21st-century readers find themselves in, and Ulin doesn't hold himself apart. He uses the bulk of his essay to lay out his own history with reading, emphasizing its unwelcome mutations. When he was Noah's age, he could polish off The Great Gatsby in an afternoon and chase it, uninterrupted, with This Side of Paradise before bedtime. Now a professional reader, Ulin finds himself finishing ten pages, then checking his email, tipping back a chapter but stopping mid-gulp for baseball scores or news feeds from the Huffington Post. When Noah shows him a Facebook group of high school kids who celebrate a love for Gatsby by dressing up as its characters and insulting Tom Buchanan's masculinity, Ulin loves this "endless looping conversation" with a great book as its nucleus. He also can't ignore that it would be impossible without the very tools that create our fractured contemporary reading minds.
Ulin doesn't slop around in the mud of this false binary and instead reframes the question: What are the great gifts of reading and how does modernity make it easier/harder to receive them? His answer may seem mushy-headed but it's also difficult to knock down. Reading gives us quiet in our noisy, chaotic days, found time in an age of longer work hours and incessant connectivity. Unless we are narcissists, the patience and time we must spend with a book, with characters who do not ask our permission to be themselves, points us toward understanding and empathy. Reading will not make us better people (Hitler had a sizeable personal library), but the act contains the strands of thoughtfulness, reflection, and generosity of spirit in its DNA, and these values don't go out of style.
To the form of the project, Ulin builds his essay from a series of observations, memories, and gentle detours. It creates precisely the quiet mind of the reader he extols, but at times works too well: A moment on Jim Crace's non-novel Useless America adds nothing and I could have done without a multi-page encomium to Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi. Ulin wants to sample arguments in order to open a conversation rather than close it with polemical certainty, which is laudable. Still, he could have avoided the rhetorical bear trap literary cynics love to set for their adversaries: that the only real argument to be made for literature's good is a circular one of footnotes strung together like costume pearls.
There's plenty Ulin does not cover -- e-readers, publishing's broken business model, NEA studies on reading's decline-then-rise -- and The Lost Art of Reading is better for it. The conversation on "the future of the book" is too loud and tangled already, and Ulin prefers to bring it back to the deeply personal pleasure each of us can find from the act of reading. At times, however, I wish he cited historical context beyond his own. A magnificent paragraph on the "revolutionary fallacy" (that we can erase the past and start culture anew) ignores the antipodal "tradition fallacy" (my term) which argues that advances in technology are by nature harmful to the heights civilization has reached before their arrival. Nevertheless, I appreciated the modesty of his attempt and the larger questions to which it gestures.
"Levelheaded" and "quiet" aren't compliments we often pay advocates of anything, except perhaps meditation and weekend spa getaways. But perhaps it's exactly what our fratricidal debate on reading's future needs right now. Can we argue, as David L. Ulin has, for reading as an act of kindness, generosity, and clear minds, without poisoning the dialogue through elitism and fear? Explorations like The Lost Art of Reading are a good place to start.