“One evening not long ago, my fifteen-year-old son, Noah, told me that literature was dead,” begins David L. Ulin’s new book-length essay, The Lost Art of Reading. Noah is not enjoying The Great Gatsby; or, perhaps more accurately, he’s not enjoying how his English teacher is having him analyze the book. Noah’s experience with Gatsby is probably not too different from many young readers who are told that they must appreciate a book, break it down, reckon and account for all of its subtleties — all in the context of a classroom, for a grade. Reading literature is just a means to an end then, a way to pass a class; unlike Ulin, who “frame[s] the world through books,” Noah’s “inner-life is entwined within the circuits of his laptop.” Noah’s pronouncement that literature is dead is fraught with cultural and technological significance. And while such declarations are hardly new, the idea that books — literary works in particular — not only do not hold the place they once did in our society, but now cannot hold a place of significance seems to hold more water than it did even ten years ago. Books are no longer the dominant media. Discourse is frenetic, fractured, shallow. Accordingly, Ulin subtitles his book Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.
Gatsby — and Ulin’s conversations with his son about it — become organizing touchstones throughout the essay, along with Frank Conroy’s memoir Stop-Time, Faulkner’s obsession with time, and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense — a tract that Ulin points out might be “the most important book ever published in America.” It’s this consideration of Common Sense, along with his son’s declaration that lit is dead, that prompts Ulin to ask, “Could a book, any book, have this kind of impact in contemporary society? What about a movie or a website?” The questions continue–
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 place? How does reading maintain its hold on our imagination, or is that question even worth asking anymore?
Ulin sets out to address these questions, drawing examples and analyses from a dizzying pool of books, websites, movies, and other media to do so. One of the highlights of The Lost Art of Reading is its confidence in defining reading as a meaningful art. Ulin tells us that–
Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.
And a few pages later–
This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase. There is something thrilling about it, this unburdening, the idea of getting at a truth so profound that, for a moment anyway, we become transcendent in the fullest sense. I’m not talking here about posterity, which is its own kind of fantasy, in which we regard books as tombstones instead of souls. No, I’m thinking more of literature as a voice of pure expression, a cry in the dark.
And yet Ulin admits to becoming, increasingly, a distracted reader, a reader who too quickly puts down his book to pick up his laptop or smart phone. This distraction seems endemic, environmental, even professionally necessary — and admittedly very, very familiar. The costs are also familiar–
. . . to read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our overnetworked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know. In such a landscape, knowledge can’t help but fall prey to illusion, albeit an illusion that is deeply seductive, with its promise that speed can lead us to more illumination, that it is more important to react than to think deeply, that something must be attached to every bit of time. Here, we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite position, that we immerse, slow down.
It’s key to note that Ulin is hardly a Luddite or a reactionary; when he writes “my reading problem” this is not a generalization — he is referring to his first-person experience as a reader. He is also open to the ways in which new media enhances literature. He writes, for example, of the ways in which Facebook and other websites create virtual platforms in which to honestly engage literature. He also discusses times when one habit of distraction — stopping to reference what he’s reading on YouTube or elsewhere on the net (a habit I fully identify with) — genuinely enriches his reading. However, Ulin’s greater fear is not so much his own personal distraction, but the costs of a permanently distracted populace–
This is how we interact now, by mouthing off, steering every conversation back to our agendas, skimming the surface of each subject looking for an opportunity to spew. We see it on blogs and in e-mails, on television talk shows, in public meetings and community forums; we are a culture that seems unable to concentrate, to pursue a line of thought or tolerate a conflicting point of view.
Wallowing through the comments section of any politicized news story is pretty much a recipe for depression, or at least a loss of faith in Americans’ ability, as Fitzgerald says ” to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
I should admit my bias — Ulin had little work to do to convince me that a decline in “deep” reading — and meaningful, reflective discussion about that reading — can only further contribute to an increasingly shallow, trivial, and openly anti-intellectual society. So what is at stake here?–
Stories, after all — whether aesthetic or political — require sustained concentration; we need to approach them as one side of a conversation in which we play a part. If we don’t, we end up susceptible to manipulation, emotional or otherwise. In February 1946, Hermann Goering told the judges of the Nuremberg tribunal, ‘Naturally the common people don’t war . . . But, after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or parliament, or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.’ Such a statement is chilling on all sorts of levels, but nowhere more than in its recognition of the fact that we are complicit in our fate.
One solution for Ulin (and I’m apt to agree) is reading, “an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage.” Best of all, Ulin’s book is the act of criticism — both cultural and literary — that makes one want to read. He reminds us that the currency of ideas is always open to us if we put in the effort, and that the moments of enlightenment, of transcendence that we might gain from literature are part of what makes a life worth living. Recommended.
The Lost Art of Reading is available now from Sasquatch Books.