If reading is not always an act of liberation, it is at least an act of self-definition. It is an experience of solitude in which we become unavailable to those immediately around us. Even when we read to someone else, usually a lover or a child, or have them read to us, the effect is to be pulled together into an orbit defined by the book. In reading we make a public space into something private, and find a way to be private in public. . . .
What’s more, we are never just reading: we are always reading in a specific place and time, in a certain chair, at the window or in the basement, hot or cold, sleepy or wide awake, alone or in a crowded room. In an essay on Ruskin, Proust writes that when we look back on our favorite childhood days of reading, what we remember is all the interruptions that kept us from the book — the family that was calling us to dinner, for example, the very dinner that was ruined because we spent the whole meal wishing we were still reading. But now the memory of the reading is riddled with all its interruptions, and we look back on them fondly as part of the same event.”
Maybe that also describes what it’s like to watch movies or television shows. I don’t think it describes what it’s like to use a phone. It could be that in ten or twenty years I will look back fondly on these nights on the couch, where I panic over the headlines, compulsively like photos on Instagram, check my email, and return to the headlines on the great hamster wheel of contemporary enervation. Is this reading? Will I recall the interruptions that wrench me away from the latest political disaster with fond nostalgia, the cries of the baby intermingled with tweets about sexual harassment and rising sea levels? What I know is that on the nights when I force myself to open a book, I feel like a person, an individual engaged in an activity at once secret and communal, rather than a receptacle of mass information.
Full text: “Reading in the Dark“
Here are some choice passages from an insight-rich essay by historian James McWilliams at The American Scholar, in which he discusses two major and complementary options for dealing with digital technology’s epochal assault on the stable self: first, take serious and substantial steps to humanize the digital world; second, retain (or return to) a serious relationship with the physical book.
The underlying concern with the Internet is not whether it will fragment our attention spans or mold our minds to the bit-work of modernity. In the end, it will likely do both. The deeper question is what can be done when we realize that we want some control over the exchange between our brains and the Web, that we want to protect our deeper sense of self from digital media’s dominance over modern life. . . .
The essence of our dilemma, one that weighs especially heavily on Generation Xers and millennials, is that the digital world disarms our ability to oppose it while luring us with assurances of convenience. It’s critical not only that we identify this process but also that we fully understand how digital media co-opt our sense of self while inhibiting our ability to reclaim it. . . .
This is not to suggest that we should aim to abolish digital media or disconnect completely — not at all. Instead, we must learn to humanize digital life as actively as we’ve digitized human life.
No one solution can restore equity to the human-digital relationship. Still, whatever means we pursue must be readily available (and cheap) and offer the convenience of information, entertainment, and social engagement while promoting identity-building experiences that anchor the self in society. Plato might not have approved, but the tool that’s best suited to achieve these goals today is an object so simple that I can almost feel the eye-rolls coming in response to such a nostalgic fix for a modern dilemma: the book. Saving the self in the age of the selfie may require nothing more or less complicated than recovering the lost art of serious reading. . . .
[A]s the fog of digital life descends, making us increasingly stressed out and unempathetic, solipsistic yet globally connected, and seeking solutions in the crucible of our own angst, it’s worth reiterating what reading does for the searching self. A physical book, which liberates us from pop-up ads and the temptation to click into oblivion when the prose gets dull, represents everything that an identity requires to discover Heidegger’s nearness amid digital tyranny. It offers immersion into inner experience, engagement in impassioned discussion, humility within a larger community, and the affirmation of an ineluctable quest to experience the consciousness of fellow humans. In this way, books can save us.
Full text: “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie“
From biblical theologian Wesley Hill in First Things:
Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place. Say you’re a teacher and you want to learn more about your craft. You may pick up Ken Bain’s marvelous book What the Best College Teachers Do and read it dutifully, annotating the margins and writing pieces of advice to yourself about next year’s lesson plans. But then, on your nightstand, say, you plop Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise down, since you’ve told yourself you’d read it ever since finishing its prequel The Chosen a couple of years ago. Late one night, you stay up and finish it. And you read that gripping scene in the yeshiva where the protagonist Reuven is quizzed mercilessly about arcana from the Talmud, and suddenly, you see not only the kind of teacher you need to be (Socratic, inspiring, relishing the mysterious complexity of your subject) but also find the inspiration you need to finish that next lecture. Your supposedly irrelevant fiction reading becomes more, or at least as, important to you as your allegedly more relevant textbook. And you grasp intuitively what my friend Luke Neff once put into a pithy saying: “Cultural omnivores make the best teachers.”
. . . Not all reading should be “irrelevant.” Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.
I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign.
MORE: “In Praise of Irrelevant Reading“
Yesterday I posted some excerpts from and commentary on last weekend’s interview with Stephen King in Parade magazine, in which King says he’s uneasy about the future of reading in an increasingly screen-oriented culture. The main data point he cites in this regard is his experience of teaching a couple of writing seminars to Canadian high school students last year and finding that although the students were very bright, their written language skills — and by implication their reading skills — were dismal. (See “Stephen King on writing, inner dictation, and his fears for the future of reading.”)
Following on from this, and for what it’s worth, I can confirm King’s observations and worries from my own 13 years of experience as a teacher, first in high school and now in college. The scary things you’re hearing about the collective state of literacy, or rather a-literacy, among the screen-reared generation are not just hype, not just hand-wringing, not just empty Chicken Little-ism. It really and truly is the case that among people under, say, 30 years of age, the very idea of reading, the attitude and sensibility that says reading is something desirable or worthwhile or even, in many cases, tolerable, is locked in mortal combat with the psychic-gravitational pull of screens and visual media culture. And it looks for all the world as if the ruling idea from the Highlander mythos — that “There can be only one” — is fully in play. And reading is losing the war. Badly. Read the rest of this entry
There’s a nifty interview with Stephen King in last weekend’s edition of that bastion of substantive journalism, Parade magazine. It’s actually the cover feature, which knocks the usually fluff-filled magazine up a notch in my (probably immaterial) estimation.
Among the highlights are the following points of interest:
King explains why he’s not a horror writer:
Interviewer Ken Tucker: [Your new novel] Joyland has supernatural elements, but it isn’t a horror novel.
Stephen King: I’ve been typed as a horror writer, and I’ve always said to people, “I don’t care what you call me as long as the checks don’t bounce and the family gets fed.” But I never saw myself that way. I just saw myself as a novelist.
King explains the mysterious fact of inner guidance in the act of writing:
I’m a situational writer. You give me a situation, like a writer gets in a car crash, breaks his leg, is kidnapped by his number-one fan, and is kept in a cabin and forced to write a book — everything else springs from there. You really don’t have to work once you’ve had the idea. All you have to do is kind of take dictation from something inside.
King describes his uneasiness about the future of reading in a screen-dominated culture:
Tucker: Do you think that reading occupies the same importance for kids today?
King: No, absolutely not. I think it’s because they’re so screen-oriented [TVs, computers, smartphones]. They do read — girls in particular read a lot. They have a tendency to go toward the paranormal, romances, Twilight and stuff like that. And then it starts to taper off because other things take precedence, like the Kardashian sisters. I did a couple of writing seminars in Canada last year with high school kids. These were the bright kids, Ken; they all have computers, but they can’t spell. Because spell-check won’t [help] you if you don’t know “through” from “threw.” I told them, “If you can read in the 21st century, you own the world.” Because you learn to write from reading. But there are so many other byways for the consciousness to go down now; it makes me uneasy.
Note that in addition to reading the interview, you can listen to portions of King’s actual conversation with the interviewer, and also watch him posing for a Parade photo shoot, in this brief “Behind the Scenes” video:
Over at The American Scholar, Michael Dirda is retiring his wonderful “Browsings” column. (In case you’re somehow unaware of Michael Dirda — a crazy thought — he “is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.”)
Naturally, his column, which has been published weekly for the past year, is devoted to exploring, reflecting, meditating on, and celebrating the world of books and reading, as refracted through Michael’s magnificently rich sensibility for such things. The final installment, published just yesterday, takes the form of “an exhortation to read, read, read,” as articulated in these oh-so-choice words of wisdom about the deep meaning of books as such:
Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. When I was growing up, there used to be a magisterial librarian’s guide entitled Living with Books. I think that’s the right idea. Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, reminding you, chastising you, calling to you … [T]he world is full of wonderful stories, heartbreakingly beautiful and witty poems, thrilling works of history, biography, and philosophy. They will make you laugh, or hug yourself with pleasure, or deepen your thinking, or move you as profoundly as any experience this side of a serious love affair.
— Michael Dirda, “A Positively, Final Appearance,” Browsings, The American Scholar, February 1, 2013
If such thoughts and sentiments speak to you, then be advised that much wonderful reading awaits you in the column’s previous installments.
Although my work as an author has been overwhelmingly centered in realms of darkness and horror, as cross-fertilized by my deep and personal focus on matters of religion, philosophy, and psychology, I have also been a lifelong lover of fantasy and science fiction. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the foundational books in my life has been A Wrinkle in Time, which wraps up all of these genres, themes, and concerns inside a story, a writing style, and a sensibility that together epitomize the word “wonderful.” Interestingly, over the past decade-plus of my involvement in professional writing and publishing, I’ve found that many other authors who likewise work in the field labeled “horror” count Wrinkle as one of their most cherished books.
Yesterday I caught wind of the fact that a graphic novel adaptation has just been released. I did a bit of looking into it. This involved reading several plot summaries and celebrations of the original novel. And, appropriately enough, it all sent my thoughts and emotions soaring backward and forward through time. Read the rest of this entry
Here are some wise and lovely thoughts on the deep value of memorizing poetry from NYU English professor Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.
It may be tempting to lament the passing of an era when one and all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge stored inside their heads, but the once-mandatory exercise was not universally beloved. For some, standing tongue-tied in front of mocking classmates and a threatening teacher when the words wouldn’t come was a hated and humiliating ordeal. For others — perhaps for the majority — it was just something to get through, a practice that meant little at the time, and still less later on.
But there’s a world of difference between being forced to memorize a poem and choosing to do it off one’s own bat. The pleasures of this exercise are many: It can be amusing or moving, challenging and satisfying, simple or profound. And sometimes it provides much more than pleasure.
Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie, Invictus, dwells upon the strength that Nelson Mandela drew from his memory of W.E. Henley’s poem during 27 years of captivity. And one of the most devastating chapters in If This Is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, records the moment when the author recites the Ulysses canto from the Inferno to a fellow inmate and understands for the first time the terrifying implications of Dante’s words. There are memoirs aplenty about the degradations of life in the Soviet gulag, in which survivors give thanks for the saving grace of Pushkin’s poetry committed to memory in happier days.
When everything else has been taken from you, a memorized poem remains. It is there to remind you of who you once were, who you are now, and who you might be. It is there to remind you that there is a world beyond the self, a world in which someone once joined word and word and word to make something that had never existed before, a world in which the possibility for change, for seeing differently, is always there. It is there to remind you that you are not alone. When you recite a poem, you are in conversation with another.
You don’t need to be in desperate circumstances to appreciate the power of the memorized poem. You don’t even need a power cut. Go on, try it. Consider beginning with a poem written in the first person—perhaps Thomas Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass,” Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility,” or those famous 16 lines by Henley. And then ask yourself: Where does the “I” of the poem end and your “I” begin?
— Catherine Robson, “Why Memorize a Poem?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2012
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Image: “Young Man Reading by Candlelight” by Matthias Stom (fl. 1615–1649) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s an excerpt worth pondering from a brief email interview with humorist, critic, and author Joe Queenan at The New York Times‘ ArtBeat blog, occasioned by the publication of Queenan’s new memoir One for the Books, about his lifetime of passionate engagement with books and “his own eccentric reading style.”
Q. One of your book’s biggest themes is the superiority of books to e-readers. Are you optimistic about the future of books on paper? And do you consider this book more of an early eulogy or a rallying cry?
A. The book is elegiac. Books, I think, are dead. You cannot fight the zeitgeist and you cannot fight corporations. The genius of corporations is that they force you to make decisions about how you will live your life and then beguile you into thinking that it was all your choice. Compact discs are not superior to vinyl. E-readers are not superior to books. Lite beer is not the great leap forward. A society that replaces seven-tier wedding cakes with lo-fat cupcakes is a society that deserves to be put to the sword. But you can’t fight City Hall. I also believe that everything that happens to you as you grow older makes it easier to die, because the world you once lived in, and presumably loved, is gone. As I have said before, when Keith Richards goes, I’m going too. Same deal with books.
— John Williams, “‘Books, I Think, Are Dead’: Joe Queenan Talks About One for the Books,” ArtsBeat, The New York Times, November 30, 2012
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