Reading 27


The following passage is adapted from an essay entitled “The Lost Art of Reading” (2009 by David Ulin).

  1. Sometime late last year, I
  2. noticed I was having trouble
  3. sitting down to read. That’s
  4. a problem if you do what I
  5. do, but it’s an even bigger
  6. problem if you’re the kind
  7. of person I am. Since I
  8. discovered reading, I’ve
  9. always been surrounded by
  10. stacks of books. I read my
  11. way through camp, school,
  12. nights, weekends; when my
  13. girlfriend and I backpacked
  14. through Europe, I had to buy
  15. a suitcase to accommodate the
  16. books I picked up along the
  17. way. For her, the highlight
  18. of the trip was the man in
  19. Florence who offered a
  20. tour of the Uffizi. For me, it
  21. was the serendipity of
  22. stumbling across a London
  23. bookstall that had once been
  24. owned by the Scottish writer
  25. Alexander Trocchi, whose work
  26. I adored.
  27. In his 1967 memoir,
  28. “Stop-Time,” Frank Conroy
  29. describes his initiation into
  30. literature as an adolescent.
  31. “I’d lie in bed . . . and read one
  32. paperback after another until
  33. two or three in the morning…
  34. The real world dissolved and I
  35. was free to drift in fantasy,
  36. living a thousand lives, each
  37. one more powerful, more
  38. accessible, and more real than
  39. my own.” I know that boy: I
  40. was that boy. And I have
  41. always read like that, although
  42. these days, I find myself
  43. driven by the idea that in the
  44. one-to-one attention they
  45. require, books are not tools to
  46. retreat from but rather to
  47. understand and interact with
  48. the world.
  49. So what happened? It isn’t a
  50. failure of desire so much as
  51. one of will. Or not will, exactly,
  52. but focus: the ability to still
  53. my mind long enough to
  54. inhabit someone else’s world,
  55. and to let that someone else
  56. inhabit mine. Reading is an
  57. act of contemplation, perhaps
  58. the only act in which we allow
  59. ourselves to merge with the
  60. consciousness of another
  61. human being. We possess the
  62. books we read, but they
  63. possess us also, filling us with
  64. thoughts and observations,
  65. asking us to make them part
  66. of ourselves. This is what
  67. Conroy was hinting, the way
  68. books enlarge us by giving
  69. direct access to experiences
  70. not our own. In order for
  71. this to work, however, we
  72. need a certain type of
  73. silence, an ability to filter
  74. out the noise.
  75. Such a state is increasingly
  76. elusive in our over-networked
  77. culture, in which every rumor
  78. and mundanity is blogged
  79. and tweeted. Today, it seems
  80. it is not contemplation we seek
  81. but an odd sort of distraction
  82. masquerading as being in the
  83. know. Why? Because of the
  84. illusion that illumination is
  85. based on speed, that it is more
  86. important to react than to
  87. think, that we live in a culture
  88. in which something is attached
  89. to every bit of time.
  90. I am too susceptible, it turns
  91. out, to the tumult of the culture,
  92. the sound and fury signifying
  93. nothing. For many years, I
  94. have read primarily at night.
  95. These days, however, after
  96. spending hours reading
  97. e-mails and fielding phone
  98. calls in the office, tracking
  99. stories across countless
  100. websites, I find it difficult to
  101. quiet down. I pick up a book
  102. and read a paragraph; then
  103. my mind wanders and I drift
  104. onto the Internet, pace the
  105. house before returning to the
  106. page. Or I want to do these
  107. things but don’t. I force myself
  108. to follow whatever I’m reading
  109. until the inevitable moment I
  110. give myself over to the flow.
  111. What I’m struggling with is
  112. the sense that there is
  113. something out there that
  114. merits my attention, when in
  115. fact it’s mostly just a series
  116. of disconnected riffs that
  117. add up to the anxiety of the
  118. age.
  119. Yet there is time, if we want
  120. it. Contemplation is not
  121. only possible but necessary,
  122. especially in light of all the
  123. overload. This is where real
  124. reading comes in—because
  125. it demands that space,
  126. because by drawing us back
  127. from the present, it restores
  128. time to us in a fundamental
  129. way. There is the fixity of
  130. the text, which doesn’t
  131. change whether written
  132. yesterday or a thousand
  133. years ago. St. Augustine
  134. composed his “Confessions”
  135. in AD 397, but when he
  136. details his attempts to find
  137. meaning in the face of
  138. transient existence, the
  139. immediacy of his longing
  140. obliterates the temporal
  141. divide.
  142. When I was a kid, maybe
  143. 12 or 13, my grandmother
  144. used to get mad at me for
  145. attending family functions
  146. with a book. Back then, if I’d
  147. had the language for it, I
  148. might have argued that the
  149. world within the pages was
  150. more compelling than the
  151. world without; I was reading
  152. both to escape and to be
  153. engaged. All these years later,
  154. I find myself in a not-
  155. dissimilar position, in which
  156. reading has become an act of
  157. meditation, with all of
  158. meditation’s attendant
  159. difficulty and grace. I sit
  160. down. I try to make a place
  161. for silence. It’s harder than it
  162. used to be, but still, I read.