Sunday, November 14, 2010

314) David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading

the literary life 11/14/10

I went to the bookstore last night and picked up David L. Ulin's new book, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. As an English teacher, bibliophile, and poet, the title immediately spoke to me. I've written on this topic myself, and as a teacher, I'm always looking for arguments concerning the benefits of reading--arguments I might raise in class when my students begin yawning or pouting about having to read another classic like Frankenstein or To Kill a Mockingbird because they deem its language or sentiment has little relevance to their current lives. Ulin contexualizes the act of reading within the digital age, and his book wraps up beautifully, evoking emotion, and reminding the reader that in an "age of distraction" reading a novel can be an act of "resistance" because it encourages us to slow down, connect, and develop empathy. I love the way Ulin writes because while the opening and closing of his book connect and formulate a clear and specific thesis, the long middle is a ride through the labyrinth of Ulin's mind, where memory, research, and analysis intersect, where the leaps between paragraphs are often surprsing and poetic. The setting of his work is the mind. I read Ulin's essays and books not only for the interesting topics he discusses but to enter his mind, to see what it feels like to be in a mind that is working out an argument through a sea of complexity. When I was in the PEN program, I had to read Ulin's The Myth of Solid Ground for one of our author evenings; I got the chance to meet him, which was cool. As for criticisms of the book, I have a couple: one, Ulin seems to come down hard on high school teachers, who are presented as making students hate reading by analyzing, for example, the symbolism of a piece of writing. I had a couple of inspirational teachers in high school, and while teachers should be mindful of their practices, I think Ulin over-generalizes his criticisms. Two, his book does not discuss the pleasures and benefits of reading poems and short stories. How can the lost art of reading not at least present a section mentioning these forms? Still, the book's an engaging read and argument. I could not put it down.

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