This afternoon and evening, I read in one sitting David L. Ulin’s new book, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it.
One of the reasons books matter is that they connect us (The Readers) to the consciousness of the writers, like some sort of Vulcan mind meld. They also expose us to characters who may or may not be real but are nevertheless alive. The net effect should be that we grow more sensitive to the people around us, ourselves, and the vibrations of the world. Thus, in an age characterized by distraction and alienation, reading becomes nothing less than an act of resistance.
Ulin includes this long quote from 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley, which I want to repost here:
When we talk about the death of the novel, what we are really talking about is the possibility that empathy, however minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the novel has died. If the novel has died for the bureaucrats who run our country, then they are more likely not to pause before engaging in arrogant, narcissistic, and foolish policies. If the novel has died for men (and some publishers and critics say that men read fewer novels than they used to), then the inner lives of their friends and family members are to a degree more closed to them than before. If the novel dies, or never lives, for children and teenagers who spend their time watching TV or playing video games, then they will always be somewhat mystified by others, and by themselves as well. If the novel should die, what is to replace it?
My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. It is too different from movies and other forms of visual entertainment to be replaced by them. Nor do I believe that novels are bannable. Too many of them reside in private hands; they would be as hard to get rid of as guns and bullets. But novels can be sidelined – dismissed to the seraglio, where they are read by women and children and have no effect on those in power. When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people who speak rather like us and look rather like us but who have no way of understanding us or each other.