The Lost Art of Reading

I happened upon David Ulin’s book The Lost Art of Reading in the library last week and checked it out on a whim. It turns out that Stefanie has been reading the book as well, and she decided she liked the book very much. I have to admit that I began the book feeling very resistant to it and prepared to dislike it intensely. I also have to admit that as I sat down to read it, I was prepared to enjoy not liking it. I don’t like books that make sweeping generalizations about the way things are now, and that lament a lost glorious past and tell us our world is steadily getting worse. And surely a book with the title The Lost Art of Reading would do those things?

It did those things in places, but it turns out the book is much better than I thought. It steadily won me over, and by the end, I decided that I like Ulin’s way of thinking about things very much. He does worry about where our culture is headed, and he laments how much harder it is for him personally and for the culture at large to focus on reading in a deep, thoughtful way. We are too easily distracted by our laptops and our gadgets, too easily sidetracked by blogs and twitter, to be willing to sit down with a book for a lengthy stretch of time and to lose ourselves in it. He thinks there is something valuable about deep reading and how it encourages us to think carefully, to get to know ourselves better, to develop empathy for others, to bring us back to a sense of time and our place in it.

But at the same time, Ulin is not anti-technology. This gets at how the book won me over, because his argument is more complex than a simple dismissal of the internet. He sees the value in being able to look things up on Google; he has a Blackberry and loves it. He discusses Jennifer Egan’s new book A Visit From the Goon Squad (which I’m in the middle of right now and am enjoying it very much) and the cool things she does with multimedia in the book and on her website. He’s fascinated by the Facebook page for The Great Gatsby. He sees that technology can add to our experience of literature rather than merely spiriting us away from it. He wants to preserve the experience of reading but at the same time is willing to acknowledge that our ways of reading can change, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I also liked how he hinted at a spiritual element to reading, something I’ve been thinking about lately. He says that reading can be like meditation, a way to practice focus and calm and to get out of our own minds for a while:

What does it mean, this notion of slow reading? Most fundamentally, it returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. Even more, we are reminded of the need to savor — this instant, this scene, this line.

I’ve often felt that if I don’t get the chance to read, at least a little bit, every day or almost every day, that I start to lose a sense of myself. I feel scattered. Taking the time to read helps me pull myself back together again, somehow. It’s partly the simple act of sitting quietly that does it, but also the discipline of following someone else’s thought, focusing on someone else’s experiences or arguments. I’m not sure what kind of person I would be without reading, so in spite of all my doubts, it was a pleasure to read Ulin contemplate what reading has done for him.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

10 responses to “The Lost Art of Reading

  1. LOL, I was prepared to enjoy not liking the book too! I am completely with you on your last paragraph. I need to read regularly or I begin to feel scattered and stressed, a little unhinged even, not myself. I hadn’t thought about it before as being something that might verge toward spiritual but I suppose it can. That’s something to think about.


  2. That’s what I love about reading–that “getting out of our minds for a while”. Honestly I would be really lost if I didn’t have my books–they sort of ground me in a way that few other things I like can do. I always wonder how people who don’t read get by! After reading your post and Stefanie’s I’ve decided I’m going to have to read this as well.


  3. Haha, I was confused when I first clicked over to this entry because even your blog template is a little similar to Stefanie’s and I thought “Wait, didn’t I read this entry already today?” 🙂

    LOVE your last paragraph, and completely agree. And I’m pleasantly surprised by both your and her discoveries of unexpected complexity in Ulin’s arguments. I have to admit I balk at the leap from “Blogs and Twitter make it hard for Michael Ulin to get lost in a good book the way he used to” and “Blogs and Twitter make it hard for EVERYONE to get lost in a good book the way they used to.” Especially since that’s not particularly my experience. However, it’s encouraging to hear that Ulin could win over two readers disposed to dislike him, and I certainly agree with his basic premise that deep, patient reading has positive consequences in our lives.


  4. I read Stefanie’s review too and immediately went looking for this in our library catalogue because I know that over the past couple of years I have begun to lose the art of reading myself. Not that I haven’t been reading, but rather that I haven’t been reading thoughtfully. However, our library doesn’t seem to believe in the lost art of reading so this is one book I think I shall have to find the money for myself. I need the boost that being asked to think about how I read will give me.


  5. Joining the club here of people who absolutely have to read every day or else face the edge! And wuhu! I got this book for Christmas and am SO looking forward to it now that both you and Stefanie have recommended it.


  6. If I don’t read something every day, I get very cranky. Setting aside time to be still, to absorb someone’s thoughts and ideas, and then consider them in light of the larger world, seems to be a luxury that many people don’t take advantage of these days. There is definitely a value in having technology to enhance what we read (I’m always running to my laptop to look things up) but I would never want technology to take the place of books. It’s like eating potato chips for dinner.

    Perhaps I should add this book to my TBR list as well.


  7. Ulin sounds like a man after my own heart. I agree with his assessment about deep reading. I read for entertainment but I also read for edification. I like something I can sink my “teeth” into.
    In “real life” I don’t know anyone who shares my reading tastes so I’m also grateful for technology in that it has brought me to the book blogging community where it’s so easy to find fellow bloggers with similar reading palettes.


  8. That’s a fascinating though–reading as spiritual practise. It’s how I feel about writing. I would extend it to reading as well. Thank you.


  9. Stefanie — if you think of spirituality in a very broad sense, as something that puts you in touch with deeper realities, then I think reading might have spiritual elements to it. I’m glad we both ended up liking the book!

    Danielle — I, too, wonder how people get by without reading. They must have other ways of grounding themselves, which is fine — but reading is what works best for me! I hope you enjoy the book when you get to it.

    Emily — I have problems also with the leap from personal experience to generalizations about everybody. His experience hasn’t been my own, either. In my case, I’ve always been a distracted reader, so the internet doesn’t change that a whole lot, and I’ve actually been reading more steadily since I began blogging and spending more time online. But hasty generalizations aside, he does have a lot of good points.

    Annie — if you do read this book, I would love to know what you think of it. It certainly made me think about my own reading practices a lot. Ulin praises different types of reading — the deeply absorbed kind where you don’t stop to think much, and the more thoughtful kind, and I liked that.

    Litlove — I’m glad you got a copy of the book! I hope you enjoy it. I’m glad I’m not the only person absolutely addicted to reading!

    Debby — I agree with you that it doesn’t make sense to be anti-technology. Technology has enhanced my reading experience greatly. So I’m glad Ulin’s argument was about reading itself, no matter in what format. You are right that it is a luxury to be able to have time to read — I want to make the most of it!

    Everybook — I also love how technology has put me in touch with lots and lots of bookish people! I think Ulin would have good things to say about both entertaining reading and more challenging reading. I think the larger point is the focus the reading brings.

    Lilian — I can see how writing might feel the same way. I think any pursuit that leads to focus, calm, and careful attention can have meditative and spiritual aspects to them.


  10. Eva

    This sounds quite interesting, especially since my gut reaction was the same as yours! I’ll have to give it a try. 🙂


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