Ulin's long essay in book form (I'll estimate it's about 40,000 words) makes some good points about reading in the age of Twitter and texting and the pull of near-constant connectedness, and I certainly agree with his claim that what one might call "traditional" reading (that done with a paper book, not a device that can "do things," like look up words, log on to Facebook, or check e-mail) is important for the ways it cultivates and develops deep thinking and long attention spans. I was heartened that he does not cast the internet and e-readers and all things digital as the Devil, as some of conservative mind on this subject do, because I think doing so is unconscionably shortsighted and unhelpful. In one of the most interesting parts of the essay, Ulin references studies that show how internet usage actually changes our brains and discusses the likelihood that the initial rise of reading did so as well. There's no question that we're living at a cusp; we're changing ourselves, and we know we're doing it.
But for all of the good points and the interesting bits, The Lost Art of Reading is somehow unsatisfying in the end. I often felt as if Ulin were wandering away from his thesis, and while wandering can often be quite fruitful in an essay, sometimes he just didn't quite get anywhere useful. And while there were many moments in the text where I nodded and made little checks of agreement in the margin, there were also many places he didn't go that I thought the essay begged to get to. For example, he talks about how distracting hyperlinks can be to a reader of a digital text and discusses how this fragments one's reading but treats this as if it were a new experience in the digital age without making any reference to the long-familiar and (to my mind anyway) quite similar experience of reading a paper book that is densely footnoted. I also would have liked to have seen a fuller discussion of how "traditional" reading does that which other activities cannot do. Ulin calls literature a "voice of pure expression" (25), and makes a case for the act of reading as training for the kind of critical thinking necessary for anyone who hopes to engage in or understand political discourse. He seems to imply that that these things require "traditional" reading, but does not really explore why. Perhaps I am asking too much of this essay, perhaps I am asking it to do things it did not set out to do. But Ulin has jumped into turbulent waters here, and, while I agree with his conclusions, I'm not sure he's done enough to keep them afloat.
This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.