The Lost Art of Reading by David L Ulin

(And as promised, Book-A-Week resumes. Just a quick, last-minute one, though…)

David L. Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time is an exploration of the role that books and reading play in the modern age – in our increasingly connected, internet-dominated lives. Twitter, texts, emails, 24 hour news – increasingly we are trained to divide our attention, to consume information in small parts and then move on. In this environment, Ulin suggests, reading a book – an act that demands the single-minded focus of attention, immersion in the reader’s internal world – could be considered a revolutionary act, a “resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage”.

In the book, Ulin considers the role reading has played in his life, and there’s some recognition there for myself as a book lover – though of course his lists of names and titles are vastly different from my own. He looks at the changes technology is bringing to reading – of course with ordinary ebooks, but also with the way this technology is providing opportunities for new kinds of narrative, such as the integration of multimedia into literature*.

A point that stood out in particular is regarding a fundamental difference between reading in a book and reading online – the book as a static artifact, an object that serves a single function and does not invite distraction with its possibilities; doesn’t pepper its text with hyperlinks that jolt you out of your immersion for the instant it takes to decide whether to click; doesn’t offer you a thousand opinions and responses to consider below the main text. The book is an item that, in its simplicity, and its demand for our focus, encourages a deeper thought and introspection than is offered by our online lives. When he draws a link between the act of reading and that of meditation, it is something that resonates quite strongly with my own experiences of losing myself in a book.

At the very least, this book has made me think about my online habits, the time I spend reading articles or checking my Twitter feed, and what my time spent reading books means to me. I would highly recommend that you check this one out for yourself.

* As an aside, it occured to me at this point in the book that I would love to see a work reminiscent of Danielewski’s House of Leaves produced specifically for reading on a tablet – the opportunities these devices provide for crafting multi-dimensional narrative structures is incredible. It draws to mind, too, the resurgence of the choose-your-own-path book genre that currently seems to be taking hold in a certain segment of geek culture – something that seems ideally suited for the hyperlinked environment of digital media.


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