Books are a uniquely portable magic.
For much of my career, I’ve developed software; seeking to automate processes and develop systems built on layers of abstractions. I consider myself good at programming; diving deep into the creative process of crafting software. Simultaneously reading and writing, all to deliver a technical solution for a problem.
I also am a frequent reader of books. As I said before, often 25 or more per year. I enjoy the occasional book about reading. While out on a lunchtime walk, I picked up “The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time” by David L. Ulin.
Resistance? Reading? Books? Lost Art? Sign me up.
Sometime in the last few years—I don’t remember when, exactly—I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. That’s a problem if you read, as I do, for a living, but it’s an even bigger problem if you read as a way of life.
I had previously stumbled upon the above excerpt, though I couldn’t tell you where. Both then and this weekend, while reading David L. Ulin’s book, I heard the warning klaxon: A reminder of what I knew, a call to action, and a mandate to be vigilant.
Why does reading matter? Because language and narrative are what we have. Without them, we are just scared mammals reacting to the world around us, devoid of agency, of thought, betraying the necessary (and, yes, frightful) inheritance of our own conciousness.
David L. Ulin’s meditation on the potency and vitality of books interweaves personal anecdotes and synthesis his readings. Our attention seeking ever-connected world pulls at these fraying threads. We collectively obliterate our quiet spaces. Reading helps us map our own psyche to excavate our inner world.
As we race ever onward, chasing the cult of productivity and efficiency, we must pause. Seek rest. A sprinter cannot keep sprinting. Our minds require time. The faster the world moves by, the blurrier our understanding. To never stop is to surrender a part of your humanity.
This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase. There is something thrilling about it, this unburdening, the idea of getting at a truth so profound that, for a moment anyway, we become transcendent in the fullest sense.
David L. Ulin builds the case that reading is an intimate communion of two minds: the reader and the author. It “allows us, however fleetingly, to inhabit, literally, his or her eyes.” Much like meditation, we need silence (of a kind) to enter into that communion state. We need an ever more elusive silence, as we have collectively accepted the noise of mobile device alerts promising to keep us up to date. But up to date with what? An outer world shuddering in late stage capitalism?
To read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our overnetworked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know. In such a lanscape, knowledge can’t help but fall prey to illusion, albeit an illusion that is deeply seductive, with its promise that speed can lead us to illumination that it is more important to react than to think deeply, that something must be 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.
Personally, I used books as a kind of fortress of solitude. A place where I can retreat and replenish myself. The process of translating symbols (letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs) into narrative and meaning echoes the process of folding metal on the forge.
Chasing distractions, and entering into a reactive state, threatens my personal ability to go where I want, and need, to go. Look at the above page citations, I’ve only made it to page 35 of a short 156-page book. I could write more, but I want to leave you with two quotes, one from George Orwell and another from David L. Ulin.
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
Memory is really the story left behind by forgetting—the essence that remains when the years have stripped away all that useless particularity.
If you have no past, you have no control of your future. Take time to find those quiet spaces that allow you to build your memory, to develop your inner world. It will be your bastion of strength for the challenges ahead of you.