“Why does reading matter? Because language and narrative are what we have.””–The Art of Reading by David L. Ulin
This book had my name on it. Like many people, I struggle with internet dysfunction. (I refuse to call it addiction.) When I started this blog in December 2012, I decided to write a bookish post every day. Imagine my shock when I discovered in 2014 that my book blog interfered with my reading.
In The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time, David L. Ulin, a critic, essayist, and former editor of the L.A. Times book page, writes about his own struggle with interrupted reading. This book-length essay, first published in 2010, reminds us of why we need to read deeply. The book has been reissued with a new introduction by Ulin.
Ulin is like us, in that he has always been an avid reader and remembers the cities he has visited in terms of bookstores. (The world is just one big bookstore and we all know it.) But he began to struggle with reading with full attention after he got high-speed internet in 2006. During the 2008 election he was constantly checking the news on the internet. He writes,
I have a mental picture of myself at the computer, several on-screen windows open, one an email queue, one a piece of writing, the rest digital shards of reportage or documentation from a variety of sources: CNN, Reuters, Fox. I know this is apocryphal because, even in this era of extreme distraction, I am not a multitasker, but rather someone who does first one thing and then the next in scattered sequence, closing each application before opening another, looking, for the most part, at a single item at a time. And yet, something about this image strikes me with the force of metaphor, with the essence of emotional truth.
He writes about how our handheld devices, really high-powered computers, “shave seconds off our downtime,” and neurologists say that the internet has rewired our brains. Ulin’s own concentration on reading books lessened as he gave in to irresistible urges to check the internet frequently. And when his son, Noah, who does not like reading, complained about having to read The Great Gatsby for an English class, Ulin’s encouragement did not help much. His teacher’s insistence on their annotating the text was ruining it for him.
Ulin finds his way back to reading, partly through rereading The Great Gatsby. He reads it with no internet interruptions–the way he used to read.
And consciousness is what we now require, perhaps as much as ever—the space to sit in silence and to think. We need what I once called a quiet revolution, to resist the lures of clickbait and of gossip, to stand clear of all the fake news and the bots. A decade ago—or almost—when I first began to notice my distraction, I did not think of it entirely in political terms. I’m not so sure I do now either, although the lines have been more starkly drawn. Why does reading matter? Because language and narrative are what we have. Without them, we are just scared mammals reacting to the world around us, devoid of agency, of thought, betraying the necessary (and, yes, frightful) inheritance of our own consciousness.
An excellent book for readers in our time. And, by the way, I blog less often now so I can read more.