It’s Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn when I call up David Ulin in L.A. It’s 10:00 a.m. his time. There are dogs and yard sounds on his end of the line. Ulin’s new book is titled The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch Books, 2010). He is a book critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith.
Audrey Gray (Rail): What was it like transitioning between the topics of your first and second books?
David Ulin: It was an interesting writing process because the last book I wrote dealt with earthquakes. I was aware of the balance between long and short time, that is, the difference between human and geologic time. It needed to be timely in a certain sense, but it was also trying to deal with this broader sense of time, but then in writing this book I was very aware of its being of its moment. It’s a book that kind of responds to a lot of stuff of its moment. As I was writing it things would happen and I would write them into the book, which is not my usual practice. From a writer’s point of view that was a really interesting experience. I would have a conversation with someone about something and it would tie into some of the larger questions that I was thinking about and I would write them into the book and I felt that it was a really kind of fascinating relationship between what I was writing in the book and what I was thinking about and experiencing.
Rail: The concern about not having enough time to read, or perhaps breadth of knowledge supplanting depth of knowledge, has surfaced in other eras as well. What is it about this particular age that makes these problems so acute?
Ulin: Well, in the first place, I think that there is a great myth that at one time you lived in a golden age of reading where everybody read great literature and discussed great literature and that somehow the culture was more intellectually astute than it is now, and I don’t really believe that. But I do think that at various other points—let’s just say in American history, like the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s—that books, or what we would consider to be great books—Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, those kind of writers—were central to the culture—or even say, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, or Joan Didion. They were central to the culture in a way that they aren’t now. They were on the Tonight Show. However, I think people who take reading really, really seriously have always been a kind of sub-culture and were always looked at as a little weird, frankly.
I think that one of the reasons why our current moment is such an uproar has to do with digital technology—which I think is actually our friend, not our foe—but I also think that it’s shaking up the mechanics or the infrastructure of not just publishing and writing, but also the intellectual infrastructure of the culture: rendering traditionally relevant voices irrelevant; it’s shaking up hierarchies, it’s changing things that we’ve taken for granted about how we get information or distill information and who we trust in terms of analyzing information. All of these things are shifting, and the new hierarchy hasn’t emerged yet. I feel like there will be a new hierarchy at some point, for better or for worse.
I do think that I have watched the degrading of the public conversation. And that is a whole other issue, which doesn’t necessarily have to do with literature, although it can; it has to do with discussion and debate and dialogue and conversation. In this sort of protean, hierarchy-free world we’re currently living in, people can believe things because they don’t have to challenge their own opinions. I think that’s a function of the way we use digital technology but not a function of the technology itself.
During the revolutionary era, that culture was very much from within one’s own bias. Those newspapers were heavily partisan. The whole notion of the objective news source is really a function of the 20th century and Walter Lippmann. What I think we’re looking at now in this breakdown of hierarchy is that we’ve lost a common pool of knowledge; you can’t assume anymore that people (of whatever age) know the same stuff. People don’t have a common narrative and so it’s very difficult to frame a conversation that speaks across opinion boundaries.
Rail: In the book you describe your son’s assignment to annotate as he reads The Great Gatsby, annotating every page or at least every chapter. Do you think that detracts from the reading process?
Ulin: Well there’s two parts of the argument. One is, on a purely pragmatic level, for reluctant readers, let’s say, constructing a pedagogical model that requires constantly pulling someone out of the text to annotate it is antithetical to what reading is; and in some cases, in the case of a reluctant reader let’s say, it only encourages that reluctance because it doesn’t allow for that reader to engage directly with the text. The other, more philosophical question; which speaks more to my experience reading—the thing that always terrified me in junior high school and high school—was the idea, which I think annotation encourages, that every decision that a writer made was conscious. The example I gave in the book was Lord of the Flies. When I was in eighth grade we did the same kind of line-by-line reading and I came out of that class thinking I could never do this because how could you possibly … you know, who’s that smart? All these layers, and all these allusions, all this imagery. I just couldn’t imagine how it was all put there consciously, yet that’s what I was being taught. It made it seem so inaccessible, it made the whole idea of writing and creation seem so inaccessible.
Now fast-forward years later—now, I’ve become a writer and I know a lot of writers. We talk a lot about process and I realize that that’s an incorrect assumption, that William Golding, or whomever, while they knew a lot, and writing’s a very conscious act, part of the joy and creativity of it is when it’s unconscious or when the stuff you didn’t expect bubbles up. So I think that, on a philosophical level, that “everything is here for a reason and it was all elaborately thought out” approach does a disservice to the intangibility of art, whether that’s the intangibility of the creation of art or the intangibility of the appreciation of art.
Rail: You talk about visiting the place where Malcolm Lowry had lived and finding no trace of him there. Is the physical book the trace in the world that we all hope to leave behind, and if so, how do you feel about eBooks?
Ulin: Well, in the broader sense I don’t believe in traces. I think all traces are an illusion. We are—as William Burroughs once said, “We’re here to go.” So I think that there’s a kind of fairy tale we tell ourselves about traces, about posterity, about leaving stuff behind, but it’s a fairy tale, it’s a lie. I don’t believe in the survival of individual consciousness and I don’t believe in the survival of the physical in the end because at some point it won’t survive. In the sense of the longest possible term it’s all ephemera, and it’s all scratches against the void. For me, that’s a noble act; I mean, it’s a noble gesture. So, fundamentally for me, the idea is not to leave a physical artifact, but to leave a kind of record of what it was like. What it was like for me, or what it was like for whatever I write about, and that record can exist, and I have no control over whether it exists. That’s the interesting thing about these great books: why do we pay attention to them? After all this time it’s not just that some teacher tells us that we should, but it is because they actually speak to some fundamental thing about what it is to be human. For me the form is irrelevant in some way. It’s more about how the connection between the writer and the reader, how that experience survives—for as long as anything can survive.