Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How Can We Read?

John Siddique points us to an excellent article by David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times, in which LAT books editor Ulin confesses to the difficulty many of us share in settling to read books in these days of instant online networking. Ulin pinpoints the question of focus:
...the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves... In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise.

Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.

Here we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite position, that we immerse, slow down.
Rightly, I think, Ulin says this question of time is at the heart of the matter. Books may now seem too slow, too behind the times. Yet in such a fast-forward age, he points out, the thing which books provide, that slowing down for contemplation, becomes ever more necessary.

It's a problem which I think is behind the cultural resistance to the short story, which, being in my view closer to poetry than the novel, requires a particular kind of focused attention. (A discussion about this is currently taking place at The Rumpus.)

And whatever applies to reading applies to writing several times over, I'd say: writing books requires far more contemplation than reading them, and far more necessary withdrawal, yet, since nowadays writers are required to take part in the marketing of their own books, it becomes urgently necessary for us to immerse ourselves in online networking...
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