The Lost Art of Reading

Published in 2010, an expansion of an article Ulin wrote for The Los Angeles Times – where he is (was?) a book reviewer – in 2009. “Sometime late last year — I don’t remember when, exactly — I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read” begins the article (link, paywall)(Secret PDF).

The crush we all seem to feel today: a million open tabs, a stream of notifications, endless and algorithmically curated content – some of it produced wholly by AI – woof. You want me to sit down and read?

With the year I’ve been having, of course I’m going to pick up this slim volume from David L. Ulin. Around the end of last year I realized I wasn’t reading anywhere near as many books as I used to, nor was I giving the kind of attention to, well, anything that I used to. It culminated in a silly musing simply called “I Forgot How To Read” which I attempted to resolve with a deep reading of Infinite Jest throughout all of 2024.

The tome is still open on my desk, read-through and well-annotated, but my attention for reading has fractured into reading other books at the same time because, well, I am human.

The Lost Art of Reading is a lighter counterweight to Franzen’s The Harper’s Essay (Why Bother?/ Perchance to Dream) published nearly a decade prior. Where Franzen asks “what’s the point of writing novels in a world where the conversation is moving too fast (blast you, television!)” Ulin asks how one can possibly take the time or attention to read in an increasingly digital world?

One of the bigger points he gets to be how digital media invites reaction over contemplation. A book has no comment section. Even a book littered with marginalia requires a certain mindset to ingest and synthesize the notes of another reader’s reading. More importantly, our digital landscape focuses on getting the narrative, whatever it may be, correct.

Using the case of a professional baseball game ruined by a bad call from the ump:

“Yet, rather than embrace the moment – and what a moment; a once in a lifetime situation, a narrative that has literally never before been old, we fixate on how, or whether, to correct it, ignoring the serendipity, human error, the glorious intercession of the unanticipated, in favor of the high-definition clarity (read: morality) of the digital replay screen.”

“Such a reaction is indicative of how we often miss the forest for the trees. If we frame every situation in terms of right and wrong, we never have time to wrestle with the complexity; if we define the world in narrow bands of black and white, we don’t have to parse out the endless shades of gray.”

When you have a million decisions to make in a day, some of them being about circumstances well beyond your control and who you are as a person, the instinct is to give the yes/no answer because by the time you come up with a fully informed response, the conversation has moved on.

Can you imagine what it would be to sit with an idea? Or to have an app on your phone that locks you in to one story, one video, one idea for ten or thirty minutes at a time. No scrolling or skipping, no jumping to other apps or responding to texts – just one focus, one moment of taking in and contemplating what is in front of you?

And to think – Ulin wrote this in 2009/2010 (there is a 2018 edition, expanded with intro/outro notes that I have yet to get my hands on) – one can only imagine the struggle of such a piece to make a statement in 2024.