Monday, April 25, 2011

To Lose One Art Might Be Considered Misfortune

I should know better than to read jeremiads about the decline of reading, or the decline of The Book, but for some reason I picked up LA Times critic David L. Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Seattle: Sasquatch Press, 2010). Looking again at the Rain Taxi review of the book featured at Powells Books' site, I can't remember why I thought it would be worth looking at. Maybe because it's short? Though it's only about 151 small-format pages, it seemed longer when I read it.

There are a lot of annoying things about The Lost Art of Reading, but chief among them is that Ulin tends to admit the weaknesses in his arguments (for example, reading has never been a majority pastime, and the kind of literacy associated in the West with printed matter is only a few centuries old, even younger when you take into account how few people were literate until the 1800s or so), then to forget his concessions and go back to playing Ain't It Awful? I also noticed that he is blind to the possibility that the difficulty with reading he sometimes experiences might not just be the fault of Teh Intertoobz and videogames, not even related to his job as a professional book reviewer, but simply what I'd call Life-Cycle changes.

I've been reading for about fifty-five years now, voraciously and promiscuously but not steadily. Sometimes (like the past week or two, for example) I just don't feel like reading much. This is not because of Teh Intertooobz or videogames but because I'm reading some books that are slow going: The Lost Art of Reading was one that acted like a brake, but I'm presently in the middle of History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (Knopf, 1998) by Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross E. Dunn; and of Khatru Symposium: Women in Science Fiction, originally published in the 1970s but reprinted in 2009 by the James Tiptreee Award. Both are intensely interesting, but slow going for some reason. Every time I slow down like this, and it happens a few times each year, I feel a twinge of panic that I'm losing my ability to read or my interest in reading. (Omighod! Incipient Alzheimer's! Old age!) But then soon enough I move on to something more digestible, and I'm zooming along as usual. I also remind myself that since I began keeping my reading log in 1977, there has never been a year when I read fewer than 150 books. That's more, I suspect, than many Americans read in a lifetime. What for me is Molasses in January, is for most people "Gee, Duncan, you sure read a lot!"

And what's more, I still get a lot of pleasure from reading. I still get immersed in stories, intoxicate myself with good writing. And I often get great pleasure from non-fiction, even scholarly writing. I blazed through Jonathan Arac's Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target as if it were a Jane Austen novel (and I went through Pride and Prejudice in one evening last fall). It's true that I don't read unselfconsciously, the way I did in grade school, but that's not a bad thing. Growing up is on the whole a gain, not a loss, and when I read something good, I get as lost in it as I did when I first read Stuart Little or The Boxcar Children in third grade.

Ulin recalls how he read as an adolescent, and quotes at length from Frank Conroy's 1967 memoir Stop-Time this account of "his own initiation into literature as a high school kid on the Upper West Side (12):
Night after night, I'd lie in bed, with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me, and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning. I read everything, without selection, buying all the fiction on the racks of the local drugstore -- D. H. Lawrence, Moravia, Stuart Engstrand, Aldous Huxley, Frank Yerby, Mailer, Twain, Gide, Dickens, Philip Wylie, Tolstoi ... and dozens more. I borrowed from the public library ten blocks away and from the rental library at Womrath's on Madison Avenue. I read very rapidly, uncritically, and without retention, seeking only to escape from my own life through the imaginative plunge into another. Safe in my room with milk and cookies I disappeared into inner space. The real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own.
Ulin enthusiastically seconds this account, and I recognize a lot of myself in it too. (The overlaps in the reading list are interesting too, even though Conroy is fifteen years my senior and I am ten years older than Ulin. Ulin's admission that only "(certain) adolescents read" like this is telling. There was no golden age when most Americans read widely, as far as I can tell. When I was a kid, I had to dodge the attentions of adults who tried to get me to put down my book and go out and get some fresh air, play like a real boy. Which I wasn't, dammit. Most of my peers couldn't wait to get outside at recess or at the end of the school day; I wanted unobstructed access to the books I couldn't get enough of. Ulin knows this, but he can't helping looking back wistfully to a time when things were different, and better. As I remember them, they were always terrible.

So, for example, Ulin cites something called The Sabbath Manifesto, which articulates ten principles "open for your unique interpretation ... as we carve a weekly time-out into our lives" (86) One is "Avoid technology." (Like movable type?)  Another, number 4, is "Get outside." (Nuh-uh! Just let me finish this chapter...) "Avoid commerce," "Light candles," "Drink wine," "Eat bread," "Find silence" (I could, if Ulin would just quit noodging me all the time!), and "Give back." Not a bad bunch of ideas, I concede. But Ulin wails, "At the same time, the idea that we have to give ourselves these sorts of conscious reminders tells us something about the culture in which we live" (87). Why does he think the original Sabbath was codified, if not as a conscious reminder to provide such space in very different times and cultures? And for all that, the scholars had to erect a fence around the Sabbath to make sure that people didn't start stretching the boundaries a bit and getting busy again when they were supposed to be resting. Ours is not the first culture to have too much to do and too little time to do it in.

Ulin also quotes from another jeremiad about the death of literature, Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (102-3):
When we talk about the death of the novel, what we are really talking about is the possibility that empathy, however, minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the novel has died. ...

My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. It is too different from movies and other forms of visual entertainment to be replaced by them, nor do I believe that novels are bannable. Too many of them reside in private hands: they would be as hard to get rid of as guns and bullets. But novels can be sidelined -- dismissed to the seraglio, where they are read by women and children and have no effect on those in power. When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people who speak rather like us and look rather like us but who have no way of understanding us or each other.
This quotation saves me the trouble of reading Smiley's tract, and maybe her novels too. My first reaction was that the novel is, like print, a relatively young and technologically dependent phenomenon. (Yes, novels were written before there was printing, but can you imagine making your own handwritten copy of, say, The Tale of Genji?) What did people do for empathy before The Novel came along? Why, they listened to bards, to storytellers, to ballads, and when they could they watched plays. The idea that the novel uniquely gives us access to empathy seems willfully dismissive of other methods of access to the feelings of others. My second reaction is that the novel is capable of eroding empathy -- Ayn Rand's potboilers are monuments to the hermetically-sealed ego, and I just recently found this chilling discussion of the best-selling John Ringo, whose books I've seen but never looked into, and probably won't; and they're merely one especially degraded pole of a subliterature (or paraliterature, as I think Samuel Delany would call it) of very popular books for overgrown boys. Barack Obama seems to have read his share of serious novels, yet he seems to have lost all empathy and most of his humanity.

As I said, I should know better than to read books like The Lost Art of Reading. There are alternatives, like Laura Miller's The Magician's Book (Little, Brown, 2008), a wonderful account of what it means to become a reader without the whining about how it's all going downhill and oh my god we're doomed as we all turn into Morlocks except for a few superior beings hiding in the catacombs until we are hunted down and killed. Meanwhile, I'm going to keep reading, except when I'm writing, and vice versa.