Reading for its own sake

Column in the LA Times by David Ulin. Title: The Lost Art of Reading.

The predicament: Ulin was a voracious reader but today finds that he’s having trouble reading books.

These days, however, after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I’m reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow. Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down. What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.

Question.

Is he reading the wrong books?

I find that I have trouble when I try a book because I think I’m supposed to read it. Example: piece of literary fiction that’s been lauded by people whose tolerance for literary affectation is greater than mine. Got stacks of that sort of book in my unread pile.

OTOH I couldn’t put down Helprin’s Freddy & Fredericka when I read it a few weeks ago: the engagement was effortless, it was swimming downstream. And he’s definitely a writer’s writer, so it’s not like I gravitate toward pot boilers.

With some quarter of a million print titles published annually in the US now, books themselves have become their own fragmented cacophony. We need to be selective. We need to know when to give up on a book and move on.

Second question: might there be something else at work besides the encroachment of the new media bogeyman?

Unrest is unrest. A feeling that there’s something out there that you’re missing might be a clue that there is something out there that you’re missing — something that might have nothing to do with books and reading.

I’m reminded of the folk tale about the in fool is searching for his key under a street light. The punchline is that he didn’t lose the key near the light; he lost it somewhere else.

Sometimes we have to look for things in places that aren’t so easy or obvious . . .

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