TCR Talks with David Ulin

BY: Heather Scott Partington

David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time was rereleased this fall with a new introduction and afterword that speak to our contentious political climate. Ulin–critic, author, and ruminator in the best sense of the word–reframes his 2010 argument for the role of books in 2018’s dysfunction, fake news, and fractured narrative. Can reading save us? Ulin isn’t sure, but he sees value in resisting cynicism.

The author spoke recently with critic Heather Scott Partington by email about the value of engagement with the written word: an “empathy machine” and our “ongoing human conversation.”

Heather Scott Partington: You write about your early reading habits, saying, “I was drawn to books that were beyond me.” I identify with this idea of reading as “a series of passports, not to an older version of myself but to a different version–to the person I wanted to become” because I also read things that were beyond my comprehension when I was young. In some ways I’m still trying to catch up to the rest of the literate world. I wonder how you choose books when you’re not reviewing. Do you still think about the creation of your identity as you look for a new book? Or challenging it? Or something else?

David Ulin: Yes and no. I don’t think it’s that programmatic. I was lucky as a critic (still am) because in the vast majority of cases, I got to choose the books I was considering, so there is no real distinction between what I read, or have read, to review or for myself. As for how those choices get made, it’s a mix of intuition and intention. The first question for me is: Does this book excite me in some way? Often, that has to do with how a book might push or challenge me; but sometimes it’s about being reassured. I don’t believe that identity is static, which is to say that we are all always engaged in an act of (self-)creation, so it makes sense that one’s reading should grow along with (hopefully) one’s soul. The advantage of not reviewing for a living is that I can go back and fill in gaps, or revisit books and writers I love or want to be in conversation with. But I also want to be challenged. I want to discover new forms, new stories, new writers, new ways of thinking about expression. I want to be provoked.

HSP: You write: “I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.” Much of the book is about the meditative nature of reading. It’s an important discussion, because so many people–students, but really all humans, right now–are having trouble finding quiet within their minds to sit down and read. I am curious about the physicality of how you make yourself actually sit down and do it. How do you push past the agitated state when it feels impossible to sit and read a page or not check your phone? Or when you’ve read the same page four times and you aren’t retaining anything? Do you work against that rebellious feeling, or go back to a book later?

DU: For me at this point, a lot of that has settled. Remember, the main text of the book was written in 2010. Part of the impetus to write the book was to work out this problem, or try to—all my books have been written to address or think about problems, questions, and that was the precipitating issue for this book. Here, two key things happened simultaneously: I wrote the book, and I left my job as book editor of the Los Angeles Times and became book critic instead. That meant an immediate drop in emails and phone calls because I was no longer assigning. Instantly, delightfully, many fewer people wanted to talk to me. I stopped going to the office and returned to my preferred practice of spending my days at home. These changes all allowed me to ease back into a more immersive kind of reading. All of a sudden, there was more time in the day—or more time for me to be with me.

Now, of course, I’m back to full-on distraction. I begin each day on the Internet—reading, and then ranting, about the news. The effect, though, has been more on writing than on reading. Reading feels again like a relief, like an escape. Writing is affected because so much of what I am doing now is in response to the current crisis; I’ve become much more of a political writer in spite of myself. I’d like nothing more than to hide in my cave, but I don’t believe that is an option. If you have a platform, you have responsibility.

HSP: When your son, Noah, says, “It would be so much easier if they’d let me read it,” about The Great Gatsby,  you both touch on one of the reasons many young people abandon reading—or never pleasure read past elementary school. English teachers mean well, but many of them cling to the idea that books are full of coded secrets. I’ve been in many teacher workshops where the presenter espouses one “correct” way to annotate. It’s baloney, and I think it makes people give up because they feel like they’re reading incorrectly.

If you could develop curriculum for teens—the age that Noah was when you wrote this book—what would it include? How would you approach helping students make their way through a text like The Great Gatsby while preserving some modicum of joy and discovery?

DU: I don’t know what I would include. I would say a lot would depend on them. I’d want to talk to students and find out what they liked and didn’t, what they were drawn to and what they were not. This is not to say that I would always do what they asked, but I think it would be useful as a context. I just taught Kristen Roupenian’s story “Cat Person”—the story that went viral last year after it was published in The New Yorker—to my undergraduate fiction workshop. It’s not the best story I’ve ever read, but it is about a 20-year-old college sophomore on a hook-up, so it was very relatable to them. They identified with the material, and then we used that to move into issues of craft and narrative and what worked about the story and what didn’t. But the key was that they were engaged.

HSP: Would you be willing to share a picture of your annotations from a book you’ve read?

DU: Sure.

HSP: As you’re reading something, do you begin to know how you’re going to write about it? Or is it not until you go back to write that you know what you think?

DU: A little bit of both. Reading is like an expedition, an excavation. I am mapping the territory in a certain sense. I try to know as little about a book as I can when I begin; I don’t read PR or cover copy, or any reviews or profiles. Then I start, and mostly I’m looking around, seeing what’s interesting, or what’s interesting to me. I see where the book or the writer touches on the issues that concern me—although it’s not necessary that we agree. As I read, I start to form my own impressions, big picture (does the book work or not, why?) and small. But I don’t outline and many of the notes I take (in the form of annotations) I don’t look at in the writing of the piece. Note-taking is, for me, a way of reading more closely; it’s the act of it, rather than the notes themselves, that is the important point. When I begin writing, it’s much the same as any essay: I look for a place to begin, an opening, and then I see how it unfolds. This is not to say I don’t have a sense of where I think I’m going, even when I don’t get there. But most important is that reviewing is itself an act of writing, which means that (for me, at least) it also is—it must be—an act of discovery.

HSP: There’s a school of thought that says life is too short to finish a book if you don’t love it. Obviously, critics can’t read this way: you have to read everything through to the end. How does a reader distinguish the bad from the difficult? If readers are looking to challenge themselves and their perspectives with their reading, should they also try to embrace some discomfort as a part of their reading experience? What strategies can they develop for getting through uncomfortable, but important, reading material?

DU: It’s up to the reader. People read for different reasons. When I was at the Times, I used to always have trouble when at editorial meetings I was asked if our review was “good.” They were asking whether it was positive so they could decide where to put it in the paper. There was then (and probably now) an aversion to putting a negative review on the front page of a section, as if placement privileged the piece. I reject that way of thinking—for me, a good review is one that is expertly done. A negative review can certainly go on the cover; I put them there fairly regularly. I mention this because it seems to illustrate that difference, that divide. Those other editors, they weren’t wrong; they just had a different point of view. I want to be challenged, made uncomfortable, this is the point for me, but it is not true of everyone. As far as the life’s too short question, when I was a full-time critic, I used to joke that I was reading the book so you didn’t have to. Now, as a different kind of reader, I have come around more to that point of view. That has to do with a number of factors—mostly, that I am 57, and I have a library full of books I still want to read. The press of time is different now. I weigh each choice I make (reading and otherwise) against all the other choices I will not get to make.

HSP: In your introduction to the new edition, you quote Charles P. Pierce from Esquire the day after Heather Heyer was murdered: “Our sense of being a self-governing nation is being pulled apart. Our concept of a political commonwealth is unmoored and floating. Nothing is solid. Everything is fluid, everything ought not to be. Not like this.” You write, “Pierce is referring to the collapse of a collective narrative,” our inability to find common ground, and the splintering of our conversation into divided, self-referential camps. Can books, or a slow reading movement, compete with what happens daily on sites like Twitter and Facebook or the 24-hour news cycle? If not, what’s the value in picking up a book anyway?

DU: Nothing can compete. I believe that we are doomed as a culture and as a species, that we are living at the end of empire, but even more at the beginning of extinction. How can we come back from this brink? The damage to the planet alone appears irreparable. And yet, I don’t see this, exactly, as a reason to give up hope. In the first place, the earth is bigger than we are, we are just the current dominant species. There will be another and another, and the planet will go on. We are not destroying the planet, only our ability to survive on it. The earth will do fine when we are gone. I think about Robinson Jeffers, his insistence that we shift our focus “from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of transhuman magnificence.” Deep ecology, in other words. This gives me great solace, great consolation, since I also don’t believe in god.

At the same time, I feel that we have no choice but to do the work, march in the rally, campaign and vote and try to talk to one another, and also to make things better for all of us while we are here. No god means no eternal reward. Good. Good riddance to that idea. I want mine here, while I am living, and I want that for everyone. In the new introduction, I also refer to Albert Camus, who believed that the absurdity of the universe is what gives it meaning, what makes our own lives valuable. Is this a paradox? Yes, of course, it is a paradox. Just as our existence is. So I don’t think doom is a cause for despair, since we are doomed from the moment we are conceived.

HSP: I looked back at our conversation at The Nervous Breakdown about Sidewalking, and it touched on many of the same topics I wanted to ask you about this book: meditation, reflection, Negative Capability, how we can hold unanswered or conflicting questions in our heads. You write about “the illusion that narrative can offer fulfilment when fulfilment is, at best, a fleeting reverie. As readers . . . we occupy an ongoing state of suspension. As readers and humans, too.” How does a person learn to develop familiarity (if not comfort) with that “ongoing state of suspension”? How did you?

DU: As for familiarity, for me it is part of the condition of living, a dislocation (and, in some sense, a location) with which I wrestle every day. It’s not something I have learned to deal with so much as it is a fundamental aspect of my being. As for comfort, there is none. But that, too, is part of the state of suspension. How do I behave or function in this world where everything is conditional and nothing lingers? We have no choice but to face it head-on.

HSP: You say you read because “I am looking for authority, intelligence . . . I seek engagement—with both the text and the creator of the text.” Can you describe something you read recently that was engaging on this level?

DU: I’ve been talking endlessly the last several months about the stories of Lucia Berlin, so I might as well discuss them here. They are miraculous, strange little slices of life that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, anecdotal but also something more. They stop and start, digress and return; they make me question everything I’ve ever thought about narrative and how it works. And they pull my heart out of my chest and work it over and put it back in a way that makes me different than I was before. She is everywhere in her texts but somehow they also supercede her, stand alone. I think these are among the most remarkable stories I have ever read. That is what I am seeking, that kind of experience.

HSP: “Reading, after all, is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage. It connects us at the deepest levels; it is slow, rather than fast. That is its beauty and its challenge: in a culture of instant information, it requires us to pace ourselves.”

You wrote those words in the original edition of The Lost Art of Reading in 2010. Do you feel less distracted, now, or more? What new resonance have those words taken on in 2018?

DU: I don’t think it’s a new resonance, more a deeper version of the old resonance. Reading is an empathy machine. It puts us into the hearts and minds and souls of others—how can we not confront our common humanity when we participate in that? It also requires us to think, to suspend judgment, to wait and see. It is a mechanism of critical thinking, which is now in short supply. Probably it always was, but we have lost the thread of a common narrative, or even a common (or agreed upon) set of facts. Can reading save us? Probably not. But it is a way of stepping back from, of resisting, what are now the defining cultural narratives: racism, xenophobia, misogyny, the brutal exercise of power, the taunting of the powerless. I hate those narratives and I will resist them in any way I can. Reading is not enough; it is not enough to sit in one’s room and read and think you’ve got it figured out. In fact, reading is a reminder of how little we have figured out. But we need to resist in other ways, as well. Grace Paley once told me, in the run-up to the second Iraq war, when poets were mobilizing on the Internet: “I’m impressed by the speed of the organizing, but in the end, it’s pushing a button. People have to go to readings, to demonstrations. I believe in the presence of a person. . . . The truth is that people have to talk louder, be braver, be nonviolent. That’s what creates change.”

I agree. But all these things are connected. All these things comprise an engaged life. In the end, that’s what I’m arguing for. Pay attention. Stand up. Speak truth to power. This is what reading teaches, all those millennia of the ongoing human conversation. It is why despots always attack writers and the free press. Don’t give in to easy cynicism. The only time we have is now.


Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic. She is the winner of an emerging critic fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Heather is a contributor to Goodreads, Las Vegas Weekly, and Kirkus. She teaches high school English and lives in Elk Grove, California, with her husband and two kids.