Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reading, RIP

If the seventies’ hit single Video Killed the Radio Star is to be given a digital twist it most certainly will be on the lines of “Internet Killed the Books”. With Twitter, Facebook, e-mail , smartphones, Tumblr, Xbox competing for your attention, words assembled in a rectilinear form in black and white will hardly hold you in thrall for more than ten straight minutes. This might sound like an antediluvian rant but David L Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading is anything but that.

Buoyed by the acclaim (and vitriol) that his 2009 essay by the same name in Los Angeles Times brought him, Ulin has stretched the essay into a book. Ulin begins the book with a laser beam on his 15-year-old son who finds it tough to plough through The Great Gatsby. Ulin knows what’s wrong: “Like many of his [Ulin’s son] friends, his inner life is entwined within the circuits of his laptop, its electronic speed and hum.” Can a book really deliver that elevated sense of solitude if this relentless digital cacophony persists?

Ulin, a Los Angeles Times literary critic until 2010, delves into his past to answer this all-important question. Recalling his backpacking trip in Europe in his mid-twenties, Ulin speaks about his serendipitous encounter with Trocchi Rare Books, owned by Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi. As the bookstall’s name goes, Ulin made some amazing purchases that still give him a good shiver down his spine. Moreover, he is fascinated with the persona of Trocchi, who had all the potential to be the best Scottish literary expert across the Atlantic (“bastard son of Jack Kerouac and Albert Camus”), but instead burns out owing to his heroin abuse. The lines in his novel Thongs take existentialism to another level: “You call life meaningless and you think you assert your freedom in rejecting it. But your act of suicide is just as meaningless as any other.” That’s the thing about going to a stall and looking for a certain title and suddenly stumbling across another masterpiece. In these days of Amazon and Flipkart, a computer algorithm will tell the reader what is to be bought.

Another indelible mark on Ulin’s literary psyche was made by Frank Conroy’s 1967 memoir Stop-Time in which he talks about his compulsive reading habit as a high school kid, “Night after night I’d lie in bed, with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me, and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning.” It’s tough to think a 16-year-old would do the same nowadays. If anything, he’ll be flanked by a MacBook and iPhone on his bed.

Strangely, now is the time when people should be reading more than anytime else. Right from our tweets to status updates to blogs to mobile texts to YouTube comments, we are dealing with words more than ever before. In his recent column, Simon Kuper, a Financial Times columnist, described the language of nouveau English speakers as Globish — “a simple, dull, idiom-free version of English with a small vocabulary.” Kuper is not yet done with his excoriation: “In a Globish world, the native English-speaker triumphs. When you need to drop into Globish, you can. But when subtlety or speed is required, you beat them. Native English-speakers often steer conversation, using phrases like, ‘Can I just jump in here...’ and, ‘So what we’re saying is...’ Foreigners sit mutely, trying to follow what’s being said.” In short, move beyond LOL and bollocks like that.

There’s never a moment when we are not thinking and the way you phrase your thinking will define your articulation level. In the middle of his slim book, Ulin takes a beautiful detour and tells the reader about a near-fatal accident of his son while scuba diving in Hawaii and how his son finally managed to reach safely and compares it to his son’s complaining about The Great Gatsby, “I had a mental image of him floundering in the linguistic ocean of the novel, much as he had floundered in the Pacific on that diving day.”

While Ulin is busy slamming the current age of Instant Gratification, his book seems to be an output of an unfettered access to Google and Red Bull. Most of the book’s eureka moments happen to be quotes from a myriad of sources; right from Scott Fitzgerald to Nicholas Carr and Borges to Nicholson Baker. Ulin seems so impressed with Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that he quotes the book’s most cogent arguments verbatim and ends up cleaning the digital Augean stables with the help of the shape-shifting book: “Fiction readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensations are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from vast experiences. Deep reading is by no means a passive exercise. The reader becomes the book.”

Ulin’s criticism of Kindle too is borrowed from Nicholson Baker’s 2009 New Yorker article, “sharp black letters laid out like lacquered chopsticks on a clean tablecloth”. Though it’s true that the brains of the current generation are the digital equivalent of a web browser with 12 tabs open at once, it’s not yet certain if the Internet is indeed a bane to literature. The phenomenon needs to be given at least another decade to quantify its intelligence or vacuity-quotient. For now, let’s install the Freedom software and get off the digital treadmill.

David L Ulin
Sasquatch Books
152 pages; Rs 466


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