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.