The Lost Art of Reading

I don’t believe that reading is a lost art. You probably don’t either, or else you wouldn’t have clicked on this post. At least, that is how I imagine you: as a passionate lover of the written word, fighting the lament that reading has been relegated to an antiquated art.

But you hesitate for a moment, perhaps. You hear the unnerving, insistent cry that books are endangered, and reading is on its way out.

(And you secretly concede that this may be true.)

For David L. Ulin, book editor for the Los Angeles Times, this affront came in the form of his fifteen-year-old son’s claim that “literature was dead.” This begins Ulin’s book, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, an expanded version of his original essay found here. In the book form, Ulin depicts his son, Noah, as his foil: “he is not a reader, which is to say that, unlike [Ulin], he does not frame the world through books.”  But as we read on, we realize a more urgent resistance to reading comes from Ulin himself.

“. . . I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read,” Ulin confesses. “That’s a problem if you read, as I do, for a living, but it’s an even bigger problem if you read as a way of life.”

Noah’s resistance to reading becomes a mirror for Ulin. And as readers (reading a book about reading), we wonder if we might find ourselves reflected there, too.

At least, I did.
The Lost Art of Reading - cover art

I was given my copy of The Lost Art of Reading by my thesis chair after defending my MFA thesis in creative writing. I’d just spent the past two years writing extensively and was now looking forward to slowing down a bit. This thoughtful gift, given to me by someone who was influential to my writing, gave me pause to think about my reading.

Writers are readers first, I reflected. Yet I recalled – somewhat shamefully – that, during my studies, I had struggled to find time to read the assigned personal essays (which are written primarily for the enjoyment of reading) and other creative nonfiction — my genre of emphasis.

My difficulty was paradoxical. Reading for enjoyment had become an obligatory task I needed to complete along with the other demands of being a grad student.

I had told myself that I would read for fun, again, after I had finished my degree.

Personal essays — such as Ulin’s — are meant to be read at a slow, leisurely pace, as though one has all the time in the world. In order to read long-form, Ulin writes, “we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise.”

“That seems increasingly elusive in our over networked 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. . . . Here, we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite position, that we immerse, slow down.”

Ulin, however, resists going for an easy target, and in fact debunks the claims of “new media reactionaries” who say “technology” is to blame for a decline in reading, pointing out that “literary culture as we know it was the product of a technological revolution,” i.e the printing press. Indeed, in a delightful re-imagining, Ulin sees the prior “active pamphlet culture . . . as the blogosphere of its day.”

And I suppose this highlights an assumption about book-lovers: when we think of reading, it’s often in the form of the tangible book, a perspective which is increasingly shifting in our digital age . . . not unlike the sea-change that occurred from oral culture to book culture.

“We talk about the need to read, about reading at risk, about reluctant readers . . . , but we seem unwilling to confront the fallout of one simple observation: literature doesn’t, can’t, have the influence it once did.”

Maybe it doesn’t. But the critical, underlying question of Ulin’s book — Does reading even matter any more? — is answered in the book’s subtitle (“Why books matter in a distracted time“), not in a resounding, but in a matter-of-fact yes, of course.

At the heart of The Lost Art of Reading, Ulin explores the complex relationship of reading and the digital age. He reflects on social media’s impact on human memory. He considers reading and empathy, reading as mapping one’s world, reading as escape, and reading as self-identification. He uses research and anecdote, neuroscience and reflection. He draws upon history and literature, citing Joan Didion (to my delight) several times. His work is politically charged, and also profoundly personal. It’s as much an interior exploration as it is a cultural criticism.

Despite its title, The Lost Art of Reading is first and foremost an apology for reading, and at once an exploratory, sophisticated and nuanced one at that.

Admittedly, I’m coming rather late to the blog, the ephemeral “pamphlet culture” of the day. But as a lover of books who sometimes struggles to take time to enjoy reading, I am optimistic that I am not a solitary reader.

And so, Reader, read on.

Question: How do you engage in long-form reading in our age of distraction?