Friday, July 15, 2011

Lost Art of Reading

by David Ulin

I absolutely love books about books, so I was excited to find this very slim volume one day at the book store. It sounded great: "The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time." I thought perhaps I wouldn't find anything especially new or insightful in this little essay but at least I would agree with the author that books matter!

Unfortunately, the author focuses so much time explaining the distracted time we live in, that he never really gets around to explaining why books matter. In fact, I was left with the distinct impression after finishing the essay that the author ultimately agreed with his son Noah that literature is dead. The most I could gather from this essay was that the author believes books (ie traditional paper books) matter as a sort of antidote to all the distraction - a sort of still point to filter out all the noise and reorient your self.

I don't agree with the prognosis that literature is dead. First of all, while reading physical paper books may be on the way out, just because the story is now no longer in the format of a traditional "book" but can be read on a ebook, the computer or listened to on an ipod, to me does not mean that this new medium is not literature. Second, I think to some degree the advent of the internet and other "distractions" discussed at length in the essay enhance and promote reading books. Access to not only blogs but articles by well respected newspapers, magazines and websites make information on a much wider range of authors and books available to anyone interested. And I now have access to a much wider selection of books, be it for my Kindle, my ipod or in paper ranging from that obscure book that is out of print, the foreign language translation of a Serbian author, free ebooks in the public domain or a an unpublished book downloaded from an author's web site.

Finally, I have never perceived so much excitement and interest about reading as today. I see people that didn't really read much before, picking up Kindles or ipods or downloading apps to their phones to read or listen to books. People still stop me when they see my Kindle and ask about it and the next time I see them they have their own ebook and claim to love it. Twenty years ago I couldn't have found a book group to join if my life depended on it. Now there are not only multiple competing live book groups but you have the entire internet of book blogs, professional reviews, forums, book reading challenges etc. in which you could immerse yourself in nothing but discussing books and literature if you wanted. And yes, that in itself can be distracting, but people are still finding time to read.

I was interested in the authors contention that reading facilitates or teaches empathy but he never really developed that line of thought. While I certainly agree that reading can be a concentration or focusing exercise, so can meditation or running or painting or many other things. The poor author needs to figure out how to live a balanced life in a distracting time, as do we all. Just because distraction is there for us 24/7 does not mean that the means of that distraction is bad. We all have free will and we can choose to be distracted by the internet and email or choose to use them as useful tools and then turn them off and do something else, like read a good book. For an essay on what a distracting time we live in, this is the essay for you. For a mediation on "why books matter" however, you need to look elsewhere.