In my teens and twenties, I once calculated, I read and finished a book every three and a half days. With each decade, that number has diminished - severely so. My passion for reading has not dimmed in any real degree, but the time to pursue it seems to have been nibbled away. My mind digs less deeply into a text. Other things seem to draw my mind with greater ease. My head fills with nothing substantial, and yet there seems less space for a sustained involvement on which reading a book - particularly fiction - insists.
David L Ulin, in a piece for LA Times, describes this same experience:
I am too susceptible, it turns out, to the tumult of the culture, the sound and fury signifying nothing. These days. . . after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don't. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I'm reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow. Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down.Another surfer who came across Ulin's article also quotes the above, and adds:
What I'm struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age. Yet there is time, if we want it. Contemplation is not only possible but necessary, especially in light of all the overload. In her recent essay collection "The Winter Sun" (Graywolf: 196 pp., $15 paper), Fanny Howe quotes Simone Weil: "One must believe in the reality of time. Otherwise one is just dreaming."
That's the point precisely, for without time we lose a sense of narrative, that most essential connection to who we are. We live in time; we understand ourselves in relation to it, but in our culture, time collapses into an ever-present now. How do we pause when we must know everything instantly? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?
This is where real reading comes in -- because it demands that space, because by drawing us back from the present, it restores time to us in a fundamental way. There is the present-tense experience of reading, but also the chronology of the narrative, as well as of the characters and author, all of whom bear their own relationships to time. There is the fixity of the text, which doesn't change whether written yesterday or a thousand years ago. St. Augustine composed his "Confessions" in AD 397, but when he details his spiritual upheaval, his attempts to find meaning in the face of transient existence, the immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide.
"I cannot seem to feel alive unless I am alert," Charles Bowden writes in his recent book, "Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 244 pp., $24), "and I cannot feel alert unless I push past the point where I have control." That is what reading has to offer: a way to eclipse the boundaries, which is a form of giving up control. Here we have the paradox, since in giving up control we somehow gain it, by being brought in contact with ourselves.
"My experience," William James once observed, "is what I agree to attend to" -- a line Winifred Gallagher uses as the epigraph of "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life" (Penguin Press: 244 pp., $25.95). In Gallagher's analysis, attention is a lens through which to consider not just identity but desire. Who do we want to be, she asks, and how do we go about that process of becoming in a world of endless options, distractions, possibilities? These are elementary questions, and for me, they cycle back to reading, to the focus it requires.
I have just re-read Mansfield Park at the moment. I was listening to an audio version in my car, excellently read by Harriet Walters, but, because the version was abridged, I found myself wanting to read the novel again and at Austen's pace, not the reader's or the abridger's. Of all Austen's novels, it is the one that speaks most obliquely to us, the one time damages most, its heroine alien to us: our empathy with her needs rehearsing and those who oppose her, obstruct her or misunderstand her or all too easy for a modern mind to prefer. I wanted to slow the novel down, to slow myself down while reading it. Of one gives in, surrenders to its moral world, it is, almost, Austen's greatest work, but surrendering is not an instant act.
As I write this, I have about seven Firefox windows open to different websites. Now, I am certainly grateful for the gifts of technology, and I believe in its profound potential to keep improving our world. I love being in the constant process of creating this website; I've learned a great deal and made both friends and allies through social networking tools. But I've noticed, too, that flattening sense of distraction that Ulin describes. And it is particularly apparent when I sit down to read, or meditate. It's an unsettling itch. I read with my fingers ready to get on with it, to turn the next page. I don't like it. I'm neither mindful nor content.
A bit of affirmative action is in order. That is, a concerted effort to choose where I put my time and attention more carefully. Do I really need to refresh my email as frequently as I do? Mightn't I try out opening one internet window at a time and doing one task at a time, instead of creating this false sense of simultaneity where articles remain unread on some open tab, as if by being accessible it is being addressed? I've heard of folks who go on "media fasts" and "technology fasts." For me, I think a balanced diet is in order.
At stake is my mentality and my spirit. At stake is my ability to continue finding great joy in reading; to better seek and understand.
In my twenties, I read the book with greater ease. I knew that the novel would make little sense and give little pleasure if one did not side with the heroine. I fell through its pages. My reading this time was less fluent, more stuttering. The problem wasn't simply that Fanny's stance seems irritatingly passive or that the Crawfords seem even more our contemporaries in their preference for personality over principle, but the prose demanded more attention than it did. Reading had become a more fractured and fracturing activity. I had to concentrate far more.
Interested that this was something which I had to tell myself to do - that I was not as match fit for reading the book as I once had been- I began to surf and Google the subject. I came across Ulin's article and others on the theme of the lost art of reading - the web, a space in which the Crawfords would have thrived, evidently still has its share of Fanny Prices too.
Mansfield Park itself was abandoned while I did this, and the rhythm necessary to reading it - and that I was aware of only just achieving - was lost.
Or so I thought, but perhaps the book and I - and time itself - had developed a more complicated rhythm than when I read the book twenty years before. Back then, I opened the book and might read uninterrupted for hours at a time, and, having read it, perhaps I would have read the foreword, its introduction and notes. I might, perhaps, have gone to a library to find a book on Austen or read another Austen with which to compare it: all this a slow and thoughtful procedure, the work of days.
Now, as I read it, some thought is occasioned by that reading. I put the book aside. I google the thought that arose from reading it. Having googled, I surf a little more - because surfing is not a linear movement - and then, sated or piqued, I return from the screen to the page, I move from skimming the web to that deeper immersion a book demands - and only minutes need pass while I do this.
The distraction of surfing is not a distraction, perhaps, but an amplification of what it means to read a book these days, an expansion of the reader's task.
As I was Googling this entry's title, I came across Gerald Stanley Lee's 1903 book, The Lost Art of Reading, available on google books and from Project Gutenberg. I won't ever read Lee's book - which illustrates my point perhaps - but its contents list has an Objectivist brio that makes it something of a 'found poem', and is now part of my experience of reading Mansfield Park.
INTERFERENCES WITH THE READING HABIT
III--Dust to Dust
V--The Literary Rush
VI--Parenthesis--To the Gentle Reader
VII--More Parenthesis--But More to the Point
VIII--More Literary Rush
IX--The Bugbear of Being Well Informed--A Practical Suggestion
X--The Dead Level of Intelligence
XI--The Art of Reading as One Likes
THE DISGRACE OF THE IMAGINATION
I--On Wondering Why One Was Born
II--The Top of the Bureau Principle
THE UNPOPULARITY OF THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR
I--The First Person a Necessary Evil
II--The Art of Being Anonymous
III--Egoism and Society
IV--i + I = We
V--The Autobiography of Beauty
THE HABIT OF NOT LETTING ONE'S SELF GO
I--The Country Boy in Literature
II--The Subconscious Self
III--The Organic Principle of Inspiration
THE HABIT OF ANALYSIS
I--If Shakespeare Came to Chicago
LITERARY DRILL IN COLLEGE
I--Seeds and Blossoms
II--Private Road: Dangerous
III--The Organs of Literature
IV--Entrance Examinations in Joy
V--Natural Selection in Theory
VI--Natural Selection in Practice
VII--The Emancipation of the Teacher
VIII--The Test of Culture
LIBRARIES. WANTED: AN OLD-FASHIONED LIBRARIAN
II--The First Selection
IV--The Charter of Possibility
V--The Great Game
DETAILS. THE CONFESSIONS OF AN UNSCIENTIFIC MIND
I--On Being Intelligent in a Library
II--How It Feels
III--How a Specialist Can Be an Educated Man
IV--On Reading Books Through their Backs
V--On Keeping Each Other in Countenance
VI--The Romance of Science
II--READING FOR PRINCIPLES
I--On Changing One's Conscience
II--On the Intolerance of Experienced People
III--On Having One's Experience Done Out
IV--On Reading a Newspaper in Ten Minutes
III--READING DOWN THROUGH
II--On Being Lonely with a Book
III--Keeping Other Minds Off
IV--READING FOR FACTS
I--Calling the Meeting to Order
III--Duplicates: A Principle of Economy
V--READING FOR RESULTS
I--The Blank Paper Frame of Mind
II--The Usefully Unfinished
VI--READING FOR FEELINGS
I--The Passion of Truth
II--The Topical Point of View
VII--READING THE WORLD TOGETHER
II--The Human Unit
III--The Higher Cannibalism
V--The City, the Church, and the College
VII--Reading the World Together
WHAT TO DO NEXT
I--See Next Chapter
V--Every Man His Own Genius
VI--An Inclined Plane