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...


Vanessa Gebbie said...

You raise an important point, E. Recent events in my life have meant that I would dearly like to shut down the internet completely.

I would like to send a message to all my 'very necessary' contacts, telling them of my decision, and giving them my mobile number for texts only please. To be looked at when I remember to switch my phone on, which as my friends would tell you, is not frequently.

But then what about the promise to Salt about networking? I already dont 'do' facebook'. I shut it down as much as one can because I HATED with a passion the stupidity of the endless invitations to play games, to grow invisble gardens and 'befriend' people I'd never heard of.
I dont 'Twitter'. I don't dare to. I blog, to keep people upto date with whats going on in my life... but why should I have to? I dunno.

I am going to my retreat in Ireland in September, for over a fortnight. Bliss. Except that the publishing stuff surrounding the text book will need to be done, and Salt are on holiday now, not then. So I will HAVE to link up to the net as well as trying to immerse myself in the world of my writing.

be all that as it may. I think you have also put your finger on one reason why the short story does not 'fit' with today's grabbing for instant gratification and short attention spans as much as we think it should.

Maybe people still like to be immersed in another world when they read, and maybe it takes a while for that world to break through into the reader, as they battle with the instant response they are used to when interacting with scr eens? Longer than it used to, NOT less time. So its longer work that works, not shorter.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, real dilemmas, Vanessa. And yes, I can see that your time in Ireland may well be compromised by the publicity/marketing for the text book. I'll do as much as I can, as I'll be in marketing (rather than writing) mode right then for my own book, so let me know if you want me to do anything.