I am, like you, a rabid reader of good books.
There are times, though, when I am not so feral. Reading is mostly a bust. Books fail. They fail to pinch my nerve.
Reading requires conviction. I try to find a spark that sets my brain ablaze. I fail, mostly.
A few weeks ago my energy had waned. I needed a shot in the arm, a book that would affirm my effort and push me forth. Good books lead to a good life. That is what I needed to hear, again. I yearned to feel the swell, again.
I turned to David Ulin, no stranger to the slog. The title of his new book, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, provoked me. By reading it I hoped to regain my mojo. Ulin, a book critic by trade, is like me a lover of literature, but the advent of digital culture, he says, has affected all of us in a particular way: Close reading has become difficult.
Ulin’s teenaged son Noah thinks books are dead. He is reading The Great Gatsby and isn’t jazzed about it. Ulin, understandably, is concerned for both himself and his kin. He laments the loss of silence in our lives. I understand. There are days when I dream of a chair in an otherwise empty room. Some of the best moments of my life have been spent alone.
Like me, Ulin was a devoted reader as a teenager. Books filled him with wonder, made him feel like “the world had opened up in the palm of [his] hands. It is this that draws us to books in the first place, their nearly magical power to transport us to other landscapes, other lives.” Though Ulin is old enough to be my dad, I can sympathize with his nostalgia. What a time, my teenaged years! I, too, consumed books at a fast clip. But that pace shows why some perspective is necessary. When I was a teen, fried food, Tom Clancy, and sweatpants were amazing. My penis, keep in mind, was in a constant state of erection.
Why is youth held in such high regard? Youth represents in our memories a time when joy was free of work. We were—and this is Ulin quoting Frank Conroy—“free to drift into fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than [our] own.” The wrong word here is free. “Free” can just as easily mean free of taste. Free of values. Free of effort. Free of those damn clunky things that ruin our damn reading experiences.
Ulin’s urge to return to the time when he “read quickly and without interruption” concerns me. He seems to lament not silence but swiftness. I, too, want to feel a buzz, but I have no illusions. It takes big effort. Reading good books requires discipline. And by “good books” I don’t mean “good plots” or “good times.” Good books challenge us, and like all things important they require work. Serendipity is a crock of shit.
Look no further than professional sports. Occasionally, an athlete will break protocol and complain about the slog. Really? we ask. You make the long dollar, millions at that, and you have the gall to bitch about a game as I sit here in my cube working on a data presentation? But an athlete’s high, realize, is much higher than the high you feel when trotting around the bases in your company’s softball league. Herein lies the problem: In order to feel that joy, athletes must train. It takes conviction. Joy never precedes work—it is the result of work. After they feel that big joy, the work can seem like a grind, a slog. Joy appears, it fleets, its return date is unknown. Routine is the enemy of spontaneity. But as any great improviser knows, there is no jazz without practice. Joy is a job.
Distraction, as many have noted, is easier. Hyperlinks are fussing with our brain syntax. In the near future books will smell not of sap but alloy. Some philistines already prefer gadgets to God. A distracted clan we are, moving from screen to screen, filling our domes with facts and data, as good books lie dead or dying.
Distraction, some say, is adaptive, a product of evolution. Brains developed the ability to improvise. If you were, say, a hunter, it was best to keep one eye out for grizzly bears. Response to stimuli saves lives, especially when we are minding a toddler or carrying a firearm. Every so often it’s best to be alert.
But books aren’t bears. They rarely attack.
Ulin nails the need for contemplation, but he misses the mark about technology. A jones for gossip is, at its core, no different than a zeal for good books. In this context our mass consumption of information seems a rational act. Media of all sorts provide quantity. We consume facts and tidbits because we are curious. Information satisfies an innate urge. Technology, then, is not a crime but an alibi. Easy access allows for easy plunder. Control is ours. But it’s curiosity at a bargain price.
Ulin, thankfully, knows that quality lies not in the medium but the message. A grainy video of a performance by Björk could make my skull feel soft, whereas a book about bears, though fascinating, would not make my heart twitch.
It isn’t about technology—it’s about conviction.
Goods books aren’t rad. That, simply, is why people do not read them. They are difficult. A little bit of learning, said Alexander Pope, is a dangerous thing. The danger here is that once you feel the ecstatic, you want to feel it more and more. You want to feel undead, again. But if language has ever made your knees buckle, you know it takes big effort. Say you are reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. At first the syntax perplexes you. The words are heavy with modernist portent. All those dependent clauses impede the flow. Commas, you think, are overrated. Take a look. In this passage, a young boy, James, awaits his family’s trip to a lighthouse:
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition was bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsey, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.
The words are, at first, a trod. The first sentence wants to push forth but the commas stall the progress. The end, it seems, is “within touch” but the sentence keeps us waiting. But James, with his gnarled feelings, is waiting too. The next sentence finds its eloquence and sprawls. The point of view shifts indirectly to the mother. These are her feelings. And then there’s that last sentence, the claptrap that snaps the tongue: “It was fringed with joy.” Those five words, as Emily Dickinson would say, Deal-One-Imperial-Thunderbolt. It was fringed with joy. Those five words make my brain go goo.
Virginia Woolf is my wife and my foe. I love her for these types of sentences—but I hate her, for in her light all else pales. She stalks me. At times I wish we’d never met. The pictures have been burned. I’ve hidden Mrs. Dalloway in the stacks, only to find The Waves staring back at me. She taunts me. Her sentences—they tap at my brain. That fine English lady refuses to hear my pleas. She won’t quit me.
I don’t know how to explain the sensation. Here’s Ulin on the time he visited the place where Malcolm Lowry set Under the Volcano:
This is how good Lowry was, I remember thinking, and this is what language, at its most acute, can do. It can collapse the distances, bring us into not just the thoughts but also the perceptions of a writer, allow us, however fleetingly, to inhabit, literally, his or her eyes.
That doesn’t cut it for me. The first part is agreeable but the rest seems too easy. Language is mentioned but never explored. Reading appears, in turn, as a passive experience, absent of art and genius. There’s no mention of craft, the shaper of our consciousness. It’s all experience.
Reading rarely delivers. As Samuel Beckett wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Ulin gets the buzz and the joy, sure, but he leaves out the rigor: “The best we can hope for are a few transcendent moments, in which we bridge the gap of our loneliness and come together with another human being.” I agree with the transcendent bit but disagree with the connection part. Books are not people. They are no friends of mine. When I first read Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace, whom Ulin and I both count as favorites, I felt unbalanced. I felt influenced, yes, but in a punch drunk sort of way. I don’t want to be swayed too easily.
Reading is not an “excavation of the inner world.” It’s a lonely plunge into the unsaid. There’s no doubt that we want to enrich our lives with something. Books, though, will not “blur the boundaries that divide us, that keep us separate or apart.” Sure, we all want to feel connected in every sense of the word. We all want to feel the buzz. But we can’t have both the sensation and the shoptalk. In between, compromise lurks.
As William James wrote:
Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest experience is utter chaos.
Conviction is selective interest. The more I attend to good books the less I have to say. That is why good books transcend most experiences. They are private, in the truest sense of the word.
Reading is, to me, a faithful pursuit of an abstract essence. Joy, then, is a rare emotion.
I plod through the nothing new hoping to see a flash that shocks me still.
I want to live in the space between a weep and a scream.
I want to love something with all my bones.
I want to feel my brain go goo.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
If only I could tell you the rest.