I received a wonderful surprise Solstice gift of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David Ulin from the ever generous Richard. You may have caught Ulin’s 2009 Los Angeles Time article by the same title. The book is an expansion on the article and the book is quite good.

Before reading the book I imagined that it was going to be a rant against technology and a paean to the glory of books with lots of wailing about why no one reads anymore. This book is not that. Instead, this is a thoughtful consideration about the interplay of books and technology and how technology is both a good thing and a bad thing for books and a reading life.

Ulin is a book critic for the LA Times, it is his job to read and review books. But when he sits down to read for pleasure he discovered, one day, that he was unable to sink into a book and lose track of time and the world like he used to be able to do. He kept interrupting his reading to check his email, look at news feeds, turn on the television. His worry about keeping on top of things and not missing out, of staying connected in our 24/7 always on world was getting in the way of sustained and concentrated reading. But Ulin didn’t stop to think about it – no time! – until one day when his fifteen-year-old son who was reading, and disliking, The Great Gatsby at school, told him literature was dead.

Thinking he would help his son with his reading and prove to him what a great book Gatsby is, Ulin began reading it that evening figuring that a few hours should be enough to catch up to where his son was in the book. It’s then that it hits home how difficult reading nonstop for a few hours had become.

But Ulin isn’t against technology. He even admits that sometimes when he is reading it is nice to be able to look something up for clarification or a different perspective. Technology can enhance our reading experience. He even owns a Kindle, but doesn’t read on it much by the sound of it. No matter really. He thinks, hopes, ereaders could possibly turn more people into regular readers.

But at the same time that technology and our connected world can enhance the reading experience, it also hinders it. It pulls our attention away from books, doesn’t give us time to think, keeps us from stepping back, from deeply engaging with an idea, a thought, a daydream. Ulin writes:

And yet, we live now in a culture where the Great Leap Forward happens every minute, where time and context have grown so condensed that even anxiety doesn’t hit us fast enough. How do we pause when we must know everything in an instant? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?

What I like so much about this book is that Ulin doesn’t have an answer to any of the many questions he asks. He explores possibilities and always brings it back to himself because he is implicated in the problem. It is not “people out there” or technology or any one thing in particular that is the source of our go-go-go world. Rather it is a way of being in the world that we have got ourselves into without paying much attention and now we are beginning to lift up our heads and wonder what the heck happened, how’d we get here? And where is here, exactly?

The one conclusion that Ulin does reach is that reading is still important, perhaps more important than it ever had been. Reading, in our 24/7 world becomes

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. It connects us at the deepest levels; it is slow, rather than fast. That is its beauty and its challenge: in a culture of instant information, it requires us to pace ourselves. 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 all we need to savor – this instant, this scene, this line. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise, the tumult, to discover our reflections in another mind. As we do, we join a broader conversation, by which we both transcend ourselves and are enlarged.

Yet knowing this doesn’t make it any easier for Ulin to read. He admits in the end he still has difficulty but he keeps at it anyway.

The thoughtfulness of the book is what I liked best. That Ulin doesn’t take any kind of moral high road but declares himself guilty from the beginning and tries to figure out what the heck is going on drew me in, made me like the guy. While I don’t have any troubles falling into a book, I was able to relate all too well. There are times when I try to read that I am distracted, email, Twitter, blogs, computer games, all seem more interesting than the book.

Today I watched the Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last in which the world is destroyed by a nuclear war and the bookworm survives because he was in the bank vault on his lunch break reading. He almost kills himself in despair but then he finds the remains of a library and he is giddy with excitement because he now has all the time he could ever want to read. Of course it is the Twilight Zone so things don’t quite work out as planned. I suppose what it comes down to is somehow finding a balance between being connected to the world and getting lost in a book. There is no right balance for everyone, we all have to find what works for us and it may not be easy but we have to keep reading anyway.

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