Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Lost Art of Reading

Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Sometime in the last few years -- I don't remember when, exactly -- I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. 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.

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear," Joan Didion notes in her essay "Why I Write," and it's no understatement to suggest that this is what the dynamic between a writer and a reader offers from the other side as well. Or it was, at any rate, until the moment I became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.

The Lost Art of Reading, which is really a long essay more than a book, chronicles Ulin's realization that he can't find the quiet to read in our plugged in, always on world. With all of the tweets and blogs and google searches and links leading to links leading to more links all with music playing the background, it's an understandable dilemma. It's also not that original. What makes Ulin's account different is the way he draws a parallel between his own inability to concentrate enough to just read and his son's inability to do the same because of classroom mandated annotations. Granted, this is not the main focus of the book, though his son's Great Gatsby assignment is what starts Ulin evaluating his own reading problems. Still, it is what really hit home for me. Two of the five articles I've linked to above are about over-"wired" kids who are so plugged into technology that they can't focus. Everything is an exercise in multitasking. When we finally sit these kids down in front of a great book like The Great Gatsby, why do we make them stop reading on a regular basis? I know, I know, it's so we can force them to analyze all of the similes and metaphors and tone and allusions. And so the kids can prove that they did the reading assignment. But really, why don't we let them just read?

Anyway, I loved this little book. It's full of readerly quotes from plenty of authors. I made a conscious effort to sit and read it in a day (it's roughly 100 pages), just to prove that I could maintain the concentration that Ulin could not. I know; I'm petty. I had no trouble turning off the TV, not checking status updates or email. I wrote down book titles I wanted to look up later on my due date card. And really, it wasn't that hard. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I do most of my reading on the train to and from work when I don't have an internet connection. At home I generally watch TV and at work, when I'm not actually working, I'm still on the computer. It was nice to know that I still have it in me to sit and read an entire book in a day. It's been a while.

Since reading this book, I have noticed that whenever I sit down at the computer to write (and review) I have all of Ulin's multitask-y symptoms. I check my email, check facebook, read articles, read all of your blogs, all with a blogger window or word document untouched in my taskbar. I'll write a sentence, read an article, format the picture for a blog post, check my email. I can't sustain the concentration to write in the way that I did in school or even the way that I do when I read (I don't know how you authors do it!). Ulin says his need to unplug when reading is part of the reason he hasn't switched to an ereader. If he could surf the web in the same device that he uses to read a book, he'd be doomed! Sometimes I feel that way about writing and reviewing. When I was an undergrad, I almost always wrote papers, or at least the backbone of papers, longhand before sitting down at a computer to type them out. I used to do that for my reviews as well, back when I was posting 2-3 a week. Instead now, I have a backlog of books to review that'll last me at least the rest of the month, and I still only manage to post one a week. If only I knew now what I knew then. :)

So, maybe I'll try to unplug a bit more often and get back to writing while Ulin unplugs and gets back to reading. How about you? Is the information superhighway impeding on your intellectual pursuits?

Book source: checked it out from work

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