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David Ulin talks about why we can't read

David L. Ulin, author of "The Lost Art

David L. Ulin, author of "The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time." Credit: Noah Ulin

Today, even the most devoted readers have trouble finishing a blog post, much less an entire book. In "The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time" (Sasquatch Books, $12.95), Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin mixes criticism with memoir to look at the changing landscape of literature in the era of texts and tweets. Ulin's book is a call to arms - not against technology, as one might expect, but rather against our own distractible nature.


How does a book critic wind up writing a book about being too distracted to read?

The idea grew out of an essay I published in The L.A. Times. I'd been noticing for months prior I'd been having this trouble with distraction. I was reticent to confess, but was pushed by my editor who said if I was having this problem, surely others were, too. The essay received an immense response, more than any other piece of writing I've ever published, with 98 percent of the people saying, "Thank you." It wasn't just me.


The book is framed around your son Noah's annoyance at having to annotate his reading of "The Great Gatsby." Isn't there an app for that?

Reading by nature is contemplative - you are immersed in story and language. Noah's concern about annotation was that it pulled him out of the story - another form of distraction.


How does this new generation's relationship with books and reading differ from those before?

There is much more reliance on digital, even for reading. My kids rarely look at the actual newspaper. But it isn't like there was this golden age of reading, when everyone was reading serious literature.


In an ever-more-distracted world, how do we pause?

For me, it is more about being conscious, whether consciously concentrating or being consciously distracted. I am eminently distractible and always have been. Technology didn't make me distractible - it just offers me more ways to distract myself.


You talk about technology and the new possibilities it brings to the publishing industry, but what is the danger?

We have to be so fast, there is no time to reflect. As soon as you hear about something, it is on Twitter. If something happens, and we don't respond instantly, we're not part of the conversation. There is such pressure to respond immediately, but we lose the reflective value.


What about the e-reader? Is it better than a book?

It doesn't supersede the traditional book, but it is different. There is exciting software to create books with video and hyperlink content to open text to a wider experience. I'm not interested in writing that way, but I am interested in reading it.


Will books become extinct?

I think there is room for both. Technology has moved away from sustained reading but it may also be moving us back. With e-books, I become an active participant in a different way than traditional books. But is this reading? I think it might be something else entirely.

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