The Lost Art Of Reading: Why Books Matter In A Distracted Time, by David L. Ulin
Consider this book a manifesto in support of reading literature. The author demonstrates his passion for fiction by writing about reading literature ranging from the familiar (The Great Gatsby) to the utterly obscure and forgotten literature written by people whose early promise was wasted in drug and alcohol addiction. The author writes with a great deal of passion and also clearly a great deal of knowledge about reading, gained from a lifetime of experience. Perhaps best of all for most of the readers of this short book or long essay (at about 150 quarto sized pages), the author shows that he is not a Luddite blaming e-books for the difficulties in reading but points out that our general push towards technology and the illusion of multi-tasking has been large responsible for a decline in the ability of people to take the sustained focus that reading requires, and that allows for deep thought. In commenting about these matters the author draws a connection between the distractedness of society in our contemporary society and the decline in civility towards people who think and believe differently from we ourselves. The author’s examples, by and large, betray him to be a decadent sort of person, if entertaining to read.
The contents of this book are based on an essay that was originally published in the Los Angeles Times in 2009, and consists of a long and rambling approach to literacy that contains occasional flashes of brilliance. The author is to be praised for writing an essay in which he attempts to grapple with something, namely the stakes of the changes of brain chemistry and habit resulting from a rejection of the written word, that he does not completely understand. One gets the sense, reading this material, that the author’s reason for celebrating literature is primarily aesthetic in nature, providing an opportunity for those with a liberal arts approach to feel somewhat snobbish towards those of a more utilitarian bent, which is likely why the author praises the reading of literature and not the reading of nonfiction writing, some of which is written with considerable skill and elegance as well. One wonders, in this light, who the author is trying to convince–certainly he wishes to reassure those who think like he does, and could likewise also be considered aesthetes and snobs of a particularly literary bent, but it also seems as if the author is trying to convince himself that the sort of reading he most enjoys gives him a certain edge in thinking that those who do not enjoy lack. Unfortunately, it does not appear as if the author has any interest in dealing with the moral questions of literacy or appealing to those on the opposite side of the cultural divide from where he stands, including those who might be natural allies in favor of literacy and the power of the written word, but who could take offense with the author’s obvious cultural political bias.
The author is to be praised for his honesty in considering the reading of literature to be a revolutionary act . Not everyone would wish to endorse or sign up for the sort of revolution that the author wishes, a freedom from restraint, at best a libertarian ideal, and at worst the sort of decadence that passes for culture in our contemporary age. This honesty likely results from the fact that like many authors, he apparently assumes that those who would take the time to read are likely to agree with him. The author apparently cannot conceive of immensely literary and literate people who take the time to read books who come to vastly different conclusions about how this world ought to be. And so a reader may profit from this book even where he does not agree with its perspective, mainly in understanding how a well-read gentleman can seek to encourage a love of literature in his teenage son, and how he can appreciate the conversations with literature that take place online, even if he finds that many e-readers and their lack of choices of fine books to download sometimes leave him cold, and even if the general trend of society leads the author to wonder if reading has been abandoned by enough people to leave a society incapable of having what the author considers to be deep and meaningful opinions and judgments and worldviews.
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