Why are books on reading always so boring?
21 August 2011
One book I did NOT put a lot of bookmarks in recently was David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.
Come on. Check that title. Can you blame me for thinking this was going to be a really interesting book?
Well, it's not. Or at least it wasn't to me. It turns out that Ulin's one of those book critics and writers who's always writing way above my head.* Maybe if I'd been an actual English major I'd be able to keep up with his references, but I wasn't. And I'm never going to have the time to correct that shortcoming (that is, to go back and read all the stuff I should read: more Romantic poets, Shakespeare, mid-twentieth-century classics, more world literature, etc.), and having that pointed out to me just makes me cranky.
Ulin's starting point is a discussion with his son Noah, who is having to read and "annotate" F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby for school. Noah tells his father, the book critic:
"'This is why reading is over. None of my friends like it. Nobody wants to do it anymore.'" (p. 8.)
Much as that statement disturbs Ulin, he has a feeling his son isn't wrong. From there he goes on to explore his own experience of reading, citing such sources as Frank Conroy's memoir Stop-Time, and explaining the creation of his own private library with such authors as Vonnegut, Mario Puzo, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, and Joseph Heller. He describes his travels to Paris as a twenty-two-year-old and his discovery of the author Alexander Trocchi.**
As he describes his own lifetime relationship with reading, he does write some nice sentences of his own ("This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase.") but I never really felt this short book*** gelled as a complete or passionate treatise. Ulin himself never cuts to the chase--how and why are we reading differently now, David, and what does this mean for what we will read in the future? He just kind of babbles around, citing an author here and a cultural commentator there, mixing political stories with personal recollections. In the end I can't say there is one bit of this book that stands out to me, or that I could talk about with others.Which, to me, is where the real problem is with reading today. We don't read enough things that are worth talking about with each other, and if we did, we wouldn't have the time to. We're too busy programming our cell phones and Tivos. Or whatever the electronics are these days that people seem to love buying and programming.****
And, frankly? His son sounds like kind of a jerk to me, although I guess I should cut him some slack as a high-school boy.
*Here's a representative paragraph: "All of this suggests a complicated conundrum, between what we once were and what we are in the process of becoming. Such a conundrum is both personal and collective, having to do, on the one hand, with the way that in the floating world of cyberspace nothing is ever truly past or lost and, on the other, with the unintended consequences of this instant access, how it alters identity and memory. These issues, of course, have informed the human experience ever since there was a human experience." (p. 82.) I mean, I understand what he's saying but Christ, what a boring way to get there.
**I've never even heard of this author.
***It actually started life as an article, and I think it should have stayed that way.
****Not me. If I'm in a Best Buy for more then ten minutes I start to hyperventilate and have a panic attack. No fooling. It drives Mr. CR nuts--he once wanted to buy a new TV and get my input but I could never stay in the store long enough to give him an opinion. We still have his college TV.