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Succinct but rich
on February 28, 2011
Here's a thoughtful, sometimes troubling essay about the pleasures of traditional reading, which seems to be in danger of being lost. Oh, there are still some who read actual books; but more & more, many prefer their reading material delivered digitally. And many ask, "Well, what's the difference? People are still reading, aren't they?"
David Ulin, while not entirely dismissing the digital out of hand, makes a very strong case that there is indeed a difference. Some of what he offers is factual, some of it anecdotal; but above all else, it's deeply personal, as he explains why reading in depth matters so much to him. And by extension, why it should matter equally as much to the rest of us.
What he's getting at here, it seems to me, is the notion of reading as a sort of sacred space, set apart from the demands & distractions of the everyday world. It's a space that's intensely private, a place of engagement between the reader & the written, where the individual mind (and perhaps soul) is shaped by the encounter with words, images & ideas. The book is presented as a separate world of its own, a construct made out of the writer's own life experience, education & psyche, into which the reader enters & is changed ... presumably for the better.
Here's where the doubts about the digital come in, as we consider just how many distractions are available to the online or plugged-in reader. We tell ourselves that we can multitask without any loss of focus or understanding -- we may even tell ourselves that we get more out of reading that way -- but the evidence for that seems to be lacking. A place apart from the everyday world is getting harder to find as the digital invades everything -- often quite willingly invited in, let's be honest! Yet it's in that place apart that we can truly become individuals, or at least the sort of people we once defined as civilized & reasonably whole human beings.
The true danger of the digital lies in its very ease & ubiquity, I would think. With everything so readily available, with the capacity to continuously leap from one thing to another in a second, anything of depth must necessarily be flattened out, presented as being of equal worth (or non-worth) as the most trivial factoid. It's almost the Gresham's Law of Reading: bad (or empty) content drives out good.
Is this a fair assessment, though? My own feeling is that it's all too accurate. Whether or not you agree, Ulin will make you think about what you read & how you read it. At the very least, you won't take reading for granted after you finish the last page of this worthy little book. Most highly recommended!