David L. Ulin is an editor and book critic for the Los Angeles Times.
The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time is an engaging, contemplative, and effective long-form essay; state-of-the-union on reading: how we read, why we read, and why we should continue to read. Ulin shifts seamlessly from personal experience and anecdotes to the larger technological, social, and even political issues of concern and how they relate to reading.
There are sections of this book that feel a bit eerie in the shadow of the massacre in Arizona and our newly heightened discussion of the tenor and lack of depth of political discourse in the US.
“At the heart of the crisis is not just the evaporation of what we once referred to as shared assumptions, but even more, a dysfunction of language, a failure of the tools of rhetoric and logic on which consensus relies.”
Ulin connects a decline in cultural literacy with the decline in discord, in even our ability to empathize.
“Stories, after all–whether aesthetic or political–require sustained concentration; we need to approach them as one side of a conversation in which we also play a part. If we don’t, we end up susceptible to manipulation, emotional or otherwise.”
The latter half of the book discusses both the technological distractions of social media and the various e-reader gadgets. I connected with how Ulin initially defines reading and how it works and what it does on a personal level (“we are given a template that we must remake as our own” and reading, ultimately as “a way for us to understand ourselves.”), before expanding into the bigger picture. And that bigger picture is muddy. Various studies show new technologies are not only changing with how we interact with each other and the outside world, but they’re actually changing the pathways in our brains, changing how we physically think. Still, there are clear instances where new technologies can potentially enhance the reading experience as well.
Ulin smartly does not paint technology as an evil boogeyman. And he doesn’t offer any prescriptive advice or simple, avuncular solutions. Instead, like the act of reading itself, we’re urged to do our own deep thinking.