Thursday, December 31, 2015

Inside the World of Reading

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted TimeThe Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time 
by David L. Ulin

“I go back to the reading room, where I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I'm alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Several years ago I read a wonderful book, Distraction, by the philosopher and author Damon Young. His book describes the success of several great thinkers and writers in living a thoughtful life filled with freedom from distraction. One of the hallmarks of the lives he described was reading. It is this act, which David Ulin describes as "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"(p 150).

This observation is near the end of Ulin's essay on why books matter, The Lost Art of Reading. Some of us have not lost the art, but may need a reminder of its importance. For reading is more than entertainment, although it often is entertaining; it may also be invigorating, meditative, or even a spiritual life enhancing experience. Above all, as Ulin argues, it is a way to get in touch with ourselves in this instant as we connect with the thoughts of authors that may have lived millenniums ago.

The essay focuses on reading a through a variety of metaphors. Reading is "a journey of discovery"(p 13). The journey is different for each individual but one example highlighted by the author resonated with me. It was the immersion of Frank Conroy in books when he was a boy.  His journey began with what seems a chaotic passage through book and authors both great and small, heavy and light, but it was a start and a wonderful way for Conroy to get the lay of the land. To enter into a world that would provide him with a place that was apart from the distraction of society became a foundation on which he could build his own life as a writer.  Ulin's example reminded me of fictional readers who experienced the same thing. Some of my favorites are David Copperfield, Philip Carey, and Edmond Dantes.  And of course the resonance was very personal because, like many readers, I shared in the experience of Frank Conroy and those fictional readers.

David Ulin remembers his own library of books as a " virtual city, a litropolis, in which the further you were from the axis, the less essential a story you had to tell.(p 17). It was this view of books as a city that he translated later into remembering cities by their books and populating his reading life with a vision of the world based on his own tastes and aspirations. This is something that each of us as readers may do in our own life. The essay takes you through encounters with readers like Ulin's own son, who has to read and reluctantly annotate Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, with the encouragement of his father. But he also discusses writers like Anne Fadiman who is among the greatest connoisseurs of reading and writing that I have encountered. And we are regaled with a story about reading David Foster Wallace, a contemporary writer of revolutionary tomes. There is even a discussion about reading on a Kindle which is not necessarily a bad thing except there are a lot of worthwhile books that are not available on a Kindle, so the book is safe for the moment.

As a reader I found this essay encouraging and invigorating. It is a reminder of what I love about reading, what I would love to reread, and where I may go to continue my own reading journey. Just as I enjoy the freedom from distraction that reading can bring, I wonder at the infinite worlds that are opened when we take time to get in touch with ourselves in the pages of a book. I hope for a future that includes many things, but above all includes reading. Listen to the words of Walt Whitman:

"SHUT not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill'd shelves, yet
needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page."

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Charles said...

Thanks for the fascinating posting; I will have to find and read a copy of the book. Someone wrote (but I forget who) that we read because we cannot know enough people and have enough experiences in a lifetime, so we either expand our universe vicariously or shrink into limited insignificance within ourselves.
r/ Charles @

Ruth said...

I like that: 'I wonder at the infinite worlds that are opened when we take time to get in touch with ourselves in the pages of a book.' This is so true.

It is always pleasurable to read books (or essays) affirming what we already know are the benefits of reading good literature.

Happy New Year!

Brian Joseph said...

I have had my eye on this book for a while.

I generally really enjoy these essays regarding reading and books. The ideas that are contained in those one sound like they parallel my thinking in several ways.

I love the image of a collection of books being a city.

James said...


Thanks for sharing the quotation. I wish the best in the coming year.

James said...


Thanks for your gracious remarks. The encouragement provided by readers like David Ulin do indeed reaffirm our desire to read. I wish you the best in the coming year.

James said...


Like you I enjoy reading about the experience of reading. David Ulin's book provides inspirational metaphors like his city of books that help make his essay special. I wish you the best in the coming year.

R.T. (Tim) said...

Happy New Year from R.T./Tim at the new and improved

Stephen said...

Thanks for sharing this one. It sounds like a loving tribute to an experience we all share here!

Did the author mention the virtues of focus in our day of constant distraction? I think I ran across this as a book similar to Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain", at least in that regard.

James said...


Yes, Ulin explicitly defends reading as a way to focus in our world of constant distraction. Beyond that it is not so much against the internet as it is for reading. He uses his son's reading (learning to read well) of The Great Gatsby as one example among others of the virtues of the lost art of reading.