The Art of Reading

 

by David L. Ulin

In his 1967 memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his initiation into literature as an adolescent on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I’d lie in bed…,” he writes, “and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning. 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.”

I know that boy: Growing up in the same neighborhood, I was that boy. And I have always read like that, although these days, I find myself driven by the idea that in their intimacy, the one-to-one attention they require, books are not tools to retreat from the world, but, rather, ways to better understand and interact with it.

As an act of contemplation, reading relies on our ability to still our mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit ours. We possess the books we read, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. This is what Conroy was hinting at in his account of adolescence. In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the world’s incessant noise

Such a state is increasingly elusive in our hyper-networked culture, in which every rumor and banality is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek, but an odd sort of distraction, busily masquerading as being in the know. How do we pause when we must know everything instantly? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we become immersed in something (an idea, emotion or decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?

This is where real reading comes in, because it demands that space and restores time to us in a fundamental way. Books insist that we slow down and immerse ourselves in them. We can rely on books to pull us back from the world, to reconnect us with a more elemental sense of who we are. Text has a permanence that eclipses boundaries of time and space, whether written yesterday or 1,000 years ago.

After spending hours each day reading emails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking information across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down in the evening. I pick up a book and read, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down. Still, it happens if we want it to, if we consider it necessary.

“My experience,” William James once observed, “is what I agree to attend to,” a line Winifred Gallagher uses to set forth the theme of her book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Attention, she posits, is a lens through which we consider not merely identity, but desire. Who do we want to be, she asks, and how do we go about that process of becoming, in a world of endless options, distractions and possibilities?

When I was a kid, my grandmother used to get mad at me for attending family functions with a book. Back then, if I’d had the language for it, I might have argued that the world within the pages was more compelling than the world without; I was reading both to escape and to be engaged.

All these years later, I find myself in a similar position, in which reading has become an act of contemplative meditation, with all of meditation’s attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.

David L. Ulin is the book editor of the Los Angeles Times.

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