Monday, August 10, 2009

"The encroachment of the buzz"

A predicament which I -- and I suspect many others -- can surely identify with in this age:
Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. This is what Conroy was hinting at in his account of adolescence, the way books enlarge us by giving direct access to experiences not our own. In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise.

Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.


For many years, I have read, like E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," primarily at night -- a few hours every evening once my wife and kids have gone to bed. These days, however, 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. 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.

From "The Lost Art of Reading", by David Ulin. Los Angeles Times August 9, 2009.

(HT: Vox Nova)

Most of my reading these days takes place on the 30-45 minute commute to / from work in Midtown, Manhattan. When I initially get home, family time w/ wife and son take precedence. When I do find a little time to read in the late evenings, I can relate to Ulin's perpetual need to un-plug and contend with the many distractions of our age.

(Still, a small victory: I finished Michael Burleigh's Sacred Causes last night.)

Update! Related musings by John W. Martens, on reading the Bible:

How do you receive the word of God when you do not read? This is a strange question to ask in an age of unprecedented literacy, at a time when access to data, texts, and knowledge is constant. No longer need one rely on books taken from the library; you can carry Kindle and have over a thousand books at your fingertips. No longer need you sit at your home computer, you can bring a laptop to thousands of wireless hot spots, or simply carry your Iphone and get internet access almost anywhere. The question I pose is not a question of illiteracy as much as a reality that I have encountered with more and more people who do not like to read or read very poorly. With access to the written word at an all time high, our ability to read seems to be plummeting.

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