Why Books Matter


I finished this book last night. I don’t recall another book packing such a punch at the finish.

“I felt myself enter Fitzgerald’s language, felt its lilt, its music, carry me away.”

Right book.
Right place.
Right time.

I’ve included the closing five paragraphs below. If you want to avoid a spoiler, stop here and go pick up David Ulin’s book:

David L. Ulin. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. (Sasquatch Books. 2010)

What “The Library of Babel” evokes is an extreme image of saturation, the place where possibility tips into overload. For Borges, this was a metaphor, but as Rollason’s essay indicates, we now live, at least to some extent, in Borges’s world. What we need is silence—not to disconnect but as a respite, to uncover a little piece of stillness in the din. This is what I found on Thursday afternoons in Irvine. At five o’clock, after class was over, I would buy a cup of coffee and retreat upstairs to my borrowed office to wait out the rush-hour traffic before driving back to Los Angeles. Ostensibly, these were my office hours, but almost no one ever came. Instead, I would sit there, in a room containing the most generic commercial furniture (two desks, two chairs, a metal filing cabinet), and I would read. Sometimes, I read student papers, trying to get a jump on the following week. Once or twice, I read a book I was going to review. I brought The Great Gatsby with me a few times before I actually got to it, toward the end of the quarter, on a quiet afternoon. Outside, students called back and forth to one another as they passed along the main pathway of the campus; above the tree line, the light began to grow hazy, diffuse, in places almost pixilated, what Lawrence Weschler in his 1998 essay “L.A. Glows” refers to as “the late-afternoon light of Los Angeles—golden pink off the bay through the smog and onto the palm fronds.”

I read quickly and without interruption, almost as if I were a teenager again. First, I went back to refresh myself, to get situated. I paged through a few scenes (Tom and Myrtle drinking in the upper Manhattan apartment, Daisy and Gatsby meeting for tea at Nick’s small house) and began. “It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest,” Fitzgerald opens chapter 7, “that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night—and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.” That’s an almost perfect first sentence—fluid, light to the touch, full of promise, of insinuation—and it carried me back into the text. If, when I had first returned to Gatsby, I had done so with an agenda (to help Noah, to steer him back toward shore), now I was reading purely for the sake of reading, for the play of the sentences, for the flow of the narrative. I felt myself enter Fitzgerald’s language, felt its lilt, its music, carry me away.

And here again is what reading has to offer: the blurring of the boundaries that divide us, that keep us separate and apart. And here again, I find myself in the thrall of that interior communion, as Fitzgerald inhabits me and I animate him. I do not believe that anything is lasting; all of it will be taken from us in the end. Chaos, entropy . . . the best that we can hope for are a few transcendent moments, in which we bridge the gap of our loneliness and come together with another human being. This is what reading has always meant to me and what, even more, it means to me now. Sitting in that empty office in Irvine, experiencing the confrontation at the Plaza, the death of Myrtle, Gatsby’s tragic end, I felt as rapt and quiet, as fulfilled, as I have ever been. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy,” Fitzgerald writes in the novel’s last pages, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” He’s right, of course, and yet, in his portrayal of the precise quality of their carelessness, a kind of empathy is made. Not for them so much as for those around them . . . or maybe, in some strange sense, for all of us. Either way, the ability of the writing to connect reminds me once again of Conroy (the real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own) and his deft encapsulation of the reader’s art.

For Conroy, this was all a matter of reflex; “I read very fast, uncritically, and without retention,” as he recalls. For me, the experience was more heightened, perhaps because I couldn’t take it for granted anymore. Sitting in Irvine, finishing The Great Gatsby, I began to understand that I’d been given something, a respite, a way of reading that felt pure. This seems obvious, silly even, but it bears repeating, especially in an age when all our time seems parceled out, accounted for. This is the burden of technology, that we are never disconnected, never out of touch. And yet, reading is, by its nature, a strategy for displacement, for pulling back from the circumstances of the present and immersing in the textures of a different life.

Lately, I’ve begun to think of this as the touch-stone of a quiet revolution, an idea as insurrectionary, in its own sense, as those of Thomas Paine. 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. What does it mean, this notion of slow reading? Most fundamentally, it returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. Even more, we are reminded of all we need to savor—this instant, this scene, this line. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise, the tumult, to discover our reflections in another mind. As we do, we join a broader conversation, by which we both transcend ourselves and are enlarged. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse observes, “The whirlwind’s spent before the morning ends; / The storm will pass before the day is done. / Who made them, wind and storm? Heaven and earth. / If heaven itself cannot storm for long, / What matter, then, the storms of man?” Twenty-five hundred years after he lived and died, I read those lines and feel connected—to the author and his words. It is in this way that reading becomes an act of meditation, with all of meditation’s attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.

~ David L. Ulin. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. (Sasquatch Books. 2010)


  1. Just ordered this book on Amazon…transported by the act of being transported.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Will check it out! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Spot on.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dude! How do you do it? YOU are a renaissance man 2.0!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. yes. and the last 3 lines say it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read and taught “The Great Gatsby” for twenty-three fabulous years, and each time I found something new. I think of it as “the great American novel.” The last page is entrancing, magical, thought-provoking, and causes spine chills.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A truly well-written book transports you back to a time and place you can only imagine. Nothing in a movie can touch the delicate and/or strong language that well written book gives you. That’s why writing is so much harder than it seems. To find a balance between chatter and description is the difference between mundane and sublime. And when an author is submline AND articulate — that’s a win. Think I’m on my way to get the Great Gatsby. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reading is a true communion between two souls who agree to imagine together, even if only for a little while.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This sounds absolutely captivating, DK. I loved this observation, “And here again is what reading has to offer: the blurring of the boundaries that divide us, that keep us separate and apart.” I see this as not only a blurring of the lines between author and reader, but also among readers. Mimi and I were recently nattering about a book we’ve both recently read, and as we tore through our conversation, first one of us interjecting about something that moved or surprised us, then the other countering ‘but did you consider?’ or ‘could it have been?’ or…..and I felt so happy and so close to her, sharing this journey of the mind with another.

    Reading is *so* precious to me–it draws me out of myself, forcing engagement with the wider world; it pulls me in, encouraging me to be more introspective; it offers me respite and escape, when I just can’t deal with the ‘real world’ a minute longer.

    Just put this puppy in my queue. Thank you, pal, for enlarging my world once again. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. wow. Cant wait! Thank you – books are my addiction 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on Makere's Blog and commented:
    Books. Yes. My absolute addiction. Reading a book engages the psyche in a way that no iPad, iPhone, or laptop can ever do. There is something sensual, something ecstatic, something very visceral about reading a good book that involves all of the senses. We need more odes to books. I can barely wait to read this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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