Friday, October 2, 2009

Ulin on Concentration and Reading

David L. Ulin, book editor for the Los Angeles Times, ruminates on how and why he has difficulty summoning up the discipline to read. Excerpts:

Sometime late last year -- I don't remember when, exactly -- I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. That's a problem if you do what I do, but it's an even bigger problem if you're the kind of person I am. Since I discovered reading, I've always been surrounded by stacks of books. I read my way through camp, school, nights, weekends …

So what happened? It isn't a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. …

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. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.

Here we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite position, that we immerse, slow down.
Read the whole thing. This analysis hits me like a spear between the shoulder blades, because if readers require stillness and focus of mind, writers need it exponentially more . Much like Ulin, I find that I "check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page," immersing myself in fast-moving ephemera to avoid the hard, slow work of dredging my mind's morass with pen and paper. And it isn't so much that technology itself is to blame, although it serves up diversions with greater speed and in broader variety than the old unwired options. No, I can distract myself with the light slanting through a window, a view of my neighbor mowing his lawn, an itch on my neck. How easy it is to not do the good we will to.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
Kat...; Hat Tip: Between Two Worlds)

8 comments:

Unknown said...

I think if you have to force yourself to read, "ur doin' it rong." The only time I experience that is when I don't actually much like the book I'm reading and am only continuing out of a sort of sense of obligation. If the book is good, I will stay up late reading until I literally collapse without wanting or intending to do so. (Did that last night with Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought," and let me tell you, if you thought theoretical psycholinguistics was a bit hard to follow ordinarily, reading it half-asleep leads to all sorts of fascinating experiences.)

Loren Eaton said...

I hate to admit this, but I haven't read a book like that for years -- and I miss it. A lot of the trouble is schedule-related for me. Of course, I probably could ameliorate that with a little foresight ...

Late-night psycholinguistics sounds like a good way to get some awesome dreams.

Unknown said...

My dreams are usually pretty bizarre. I think a couple of them have made it (in summary form) into some of the less-coherent flitterfics. They usually have a strong "storyline" (or at least a vague impression of a memory of a storyline) and a heavy "fantasy" vibe.

And a good book will ruin my schedule. I acknowledge and accept this fact without rancor (though I regret not having the book to read the next day when I'm standing in line somewhere.) Though I tend to be fairly erratic, schedule-wise, regardless of other inputs.

(I heartily endorse "The Stuff of Thought," for what it's worth. If you're not as fascinated by sociology and neuropsychology and linguistic theory as I am, it's probably a lot less inherently engrossing. I doubt most other people chuckle while reading it, for instance.)

Loren Eaton said...

I wondered if this flitterfic might have been dream inspired. Then I thought this might have been the more likely source.

If you like linguistics, you might enjoy this article from The Guardian about idioms.

Proud to say I made some decent headway on a Richard Matheson novel today.

B. Nagel said...

I LOVE DINORIDERS!

Loren Eaton said...

Extinct lizards with lasers on their heads -- what's not to love?

Unknown said...

"Awesomer" was one of those weird amalgams of ideas. Part of it was "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs," a short story of truly epic proportions, coupled with "Robot Dinosaurs That Shoot Laser Beams When They Roar," a flash game of which I was recently reminded when Kongregate featured it on Epic Week, and also by me browsing through my copy of Nobilis, which features angels prominently in the nanofiction of its sidebars. I'd provide links to all that stuff, but this hotel computer sucks hardcore, has no options available, and seems to reboot randomly, which makes opening multiple windows to collect URLs seem foolhardy at best. Still, Google should locate all of them without trouble (save for Nobilis, which last I saw still retails for two hundred dollars used.)

Loren Eaton said...

I have actually played that flash game, which is delightfully silly and reminds me of my childhood when I would hole up with my NES for such long periods of time that my father would threaten to take a hammer to our tv.

Found "Let Us Now Praise" on Strange Horizons and will probably read it on my lunch break. It also looks most humorous: "I merely want to disable an attacker with a precision shot to the leg or other uh, limbal region."