Butt in Chair, Eyes on Page

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Well, there’s no requisite position for absorbing a sustained narrative, but sitting still helps.  Does nobody hunker down with a big, long book anymore?  Why have we turned into such grazers and twitchers and surface assessors?

In The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, Los Angeles Times book critic David Ullin argues that stories create us even as we return the favor.

MEH: One appealing element of your book is the coming-of-age story you tell on yourself; you have many literary antecedents in having quested for your identity through books.

For a certain kind of person, there just isn’t any replacement for literature in the search for self.  Don’t you think at some point even kids born and bred in the digital age and who find themselves with this sort of inner compulsion will rediscover books?

DU: I don’t think that kids who have this kind of compulsion have ever lost sight of books. When I was a teenager, most of my friends weren’t big readers; my brother, who grew up in the same house full of books as I did, wasn’t a big reader until much later in life. I have two kids: one is a reader and the other isn’t.

For me, technology may be an accelerant, but it’s not really a determining factor, unless we allow it to be one. I think that people who like or need that particular kind of connection will always be drawn to books. Other people, not so much. But isn’t this the way it’s always been?

MEH: I love your interaction with your teenaged son over The Great Gatsby.  He resists at first but in the end, he connects with the book.  What’s he up to now – is he a sometime reader or glued to his various screens?  Do you trust he’ll get back to that moment of recognition that Fitzgerald sparked?

DU: He’s mostly a visual person; he’ll read on occasion, but it’s mostly screens and live performance. (He’s an aspiring lighting designer, so he spends a lot of time thinking about, and interacting with, live theater.) I think that the spark he found at the end of Gatsby is the same kind of spark, for him, that he gets from seeing a really vivid live show. So I don’t know that he needs to get back to that moment of recognition; in a very real sense, although his chosen medium is different, he’s already living there.

MEH: Recently Goodreads (a social networking site for book readers) published its “best book of 2010,” voted on by its subscribers – Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins.  I haven’t read it but I do hear it’s good.  It’s a “young adult” novel and so I asked a Goodreads staff person about their demographic–which is women in their twenties and early thirties.  He told me this age group grew up on Harry Potter and still reads a great deal of young adult stuff.  What do you make of this?

DU: I think it’s great. For a long time now (even before Harry Potter), YA literature has been a fascinating corner of the writing and publishing universe — both creatively (in allowing writers to play intensely with their imaginations) and economically (it’s one of the few areas of the market that has continued to grow). A lot of adult writers now write in the genre, and I think it has a lot of possibility. My daughter, who is 12, read Mockingjay (and its two predecessors — it’s the third book in a trilogy) and she loved them. Couldn’t put them down. I don’t know if she’ll be reading these books when she’s older, but I know people in their 20s, 30s, even 40s and 50s, who read in the genre with some regularity.

MEH: I really like your observation that reading is “perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being.”  Later in your book you go further and say “The reader becomes the book.”  I was thinking that we also merge with the consciousness of painters and sculptors by contemplating their work, but the difference is that the experience is more finite.  You feel it in the moment and maybe recall it later.  But reading is actually a temporal experience – it not only takes time to read a book, but books take place over time, and the reader enters into that parallel flow.  Don’t we crave this sort of experience on some level?

DU: I think we do. We are these lonely, isolated intelligences, in these fragile individual vessels — our bodies. We seek connection, we need connection, in order to live. This is the essence of love, and also of art of all kinds. But I think that it’s particularly potent with literature because it is the only art form where we actually inhabit the thoughts and language of another person as they set it down. This is a searing kind of intimacy, and it’s a direct part of the experience; it’s impossible to appreciate the art in any other way. Literature does many things, but first and foremost, it breaks down the barriers that divide us, and allows is, however briefly, to reach a real communion with another imagination, another human mind.

MEH: I’ve been travelling a lot and last night sat at the bar at an Appleby’s in Minneapolis next to a man originally from Zimbabwe, who works for MIT and is here for a technical conference; he had a very well-worn copy of Dubliners with him and we discussed the merits of the story cycle.  I asked him what contemporary writers he likes and he laughed and said he doesn’t read them.  Since I had just been on an airplane sitting next to a chatty Aussie I told him to try Peter Carey.  Who else ranks these days?

DU: I think Jonathan Franzen is just profoundly good, in the way he excavates the intimacy of relationships. I still read and teach Joan Didion every chance I get, and also Denis Johnson; Jesus’ Son is one of the great works of American fiction of the last 20 years. I just wrote about the new Maxine Hong Kingston; I think she’s doing something very interesting in terms of breaking down the barriers of genre and thinking about story as its own kind of force. And recently I read a collection of short stories called Binocular Vision by a writer named Edith Pearlman who I’d never heard of — really sharp stuff, piercingly intelligent and deeply moving about the ways we do and do not connect. Those are just writers I’ve been thinking about lately; the great thing about literature is that it never grows old. I’m re-reading Bruno Schultz now, and after that, E.L. Doctorow, and in all these writers I find a point of connection, some way of thinking, or looking at the world, that resonates.

Leave a Reply