Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Lost Art of Reading - reading is a meditative act

I received a copy of David L. Ulin's slim book, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, for Christmas. I figured that giving it to me was akin to preaching to the choir, but I went ahead and read it, knowing full well that I would love it.

The book is essentially a long essay, and I decided that I didn't want to read it in one gulp, but enjoy it and ponder it and savor it over time. I just finished it up last night, and it was a thorough treat. Since I read purely for enjoyment, I can report that this was a most enjoyable experience.

First of all, there's the nostalgia aspect. The essay begins and ends with Ulin's decision to reread The Great Gatsby in order to discuss it with his son, who is struggling with the English Lit Class approach to the novel. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels and I enjoyed Ulin's discussion of how rereading differs from reading in the context of this book. I also enjoyed his discussion regarding how we approach the same book differently at different ages.

I enjoyed the structure of the essay--how Ulin begins and ends with a discussion of The Great Gatsby, with the middle providing a fluid evolution from personal experience with reading to parenting to how the brain works when it's reading to how technology impacts how the brain works when it's reading. This is all fascinating stuff for me. I used to be enamoured with hypertext and envisioned 21st novels as performance art, and I still see the magic possible in multi-media works...but are they books, per se? I love to read, book in hand, with just letters and the pictures in my head not on a page or screen or wall. I used to dismiss this preference as evidence of the truth about old dogs and new tricks, but Ulin has flattered me by demonstrating that this preference has more to do with human physiology than being a curmudgeon.

I enjoyed the elegance of Ulin's writing. Near the end of the essay, Ulin discusses Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, and quotes Carr's description of what happens when we read deeply:

Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, "as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, with the prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent to me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart." Reading was a meditative act, but it didn't involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind.

Reading Ulin's essay, slowly over the course of three to four weeks, I felt myself slip gently into almost a meditative trance each time I read it. The words literally sucked me in and soothed my frantic mind. The last six weeks have been very challenging ones personally. My father is dying and I am working to ease his pain, help my mother, his companion of 67 years, face her future, and provide strength and comfort to my siblings, my children, my husband, and myself. Reading has replenished me during this time, and reading this book in particular has been one of those experiences that I will always remember and cherish.

I feel like I could start reading this book from the beginning and not feel that I have gleaned all that I could from it. However, I am eager to get on with Anne Fadiman's Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love, which I picked up from the library last time I was there and is my next "book about books."

In the spirit of rereading, I finished a reread of Cranford last night, and am starting a reread of the Little House series, with a brief interruption to reread Sense and Sensibility before April.

My new mantra...reading is a meditative act in which the mind isn't cleared but replenished!


  1. What a beautiful review! I also think that this book sounds amazing and redemptive and would love a chance to read it for myself. It seems like it would be a book that would change me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and you and your family will be in my thoughts during this difficult time.

  2. Such great reading you have! I agree completely that reading can be a meditative act in which your thoughts are focused on one thing instead of skipping all around. I really enjoyed the Ulin book too; I was afraid it was going to be an anti-technology rant, but it wasn't that at all.

  3. I need to try this book -- your review was terrific.

  4. Love the new mantra and it sure sounds like this is one case where preaching to the choir was a good thing!