A Conversation with David L. Ulin


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Contemplating how to approach my interview with David L. Ulin, this year’s RWW Stanley Lindberg Editor’s Award, I read and watched other interviews and I read his book, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. I was looking for an angle. While preparing to teach my Introduction to Fiction class at Tillamook Bay Community College, it dawned on me. The term was just beginning and what a better touchstone for discussing the importance of literature than a conversation between my freshmen-level class and David L. Ulin about why reading matters. So, I asked my ENG 104 students to come up with questions for David, and with the assistance of Chris Francis, one of the students in the course, I interviewed David on their behalf.

Sydney Elliott: One of the biggest questions that came up for [the students] is what happened to reading, and how did it become work?

David L. Ulin: Excellent question. I either don’t find it to be work, or I think it was always work. I don’t think anything has changed about the way that we read. When we are engaged in a piece of text, whether reading it on paper or screen, we’re still in that same situation where you have to give yourself over to the voice, the language, the rhythm, the meaning, where you have to put yourself aside in some way and enter into the story, whether it is narrative-based or idea-based. So I don’t think anything has ever changed about that.

To me, it is immensely pleasurable. I do think that engaged reading is work because you do have to put forth effort; you have to think; you have to concentrate and focus; you have to suspend your judgment a little bit, see where something is going, which is something we have trouble with in general, and maybe more now than we used to. For me, it doesn’t have anything to do with reading, it has to do with everything else in the culture, which is a culture that feeds on distraction, and we have always had that.

So, there wasn’t a golden age of reading. When I was a kid, in high school, I was a big reader, but most of my friends were not. I was the one on a Saturday who would hang out on the couch with a book while they were doing other stuff, and I would bring a book with me when we went somewhere, so I don’t think there was a golden age of reading that has somehow lapsed.

I think, though, that all of the mass distractions in the culture, the constant screen, texting, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all of that stuff, the fact that we can constantly amuse ourselves at all times, and that, in every instance, if we don’t want to, we end up never having to sit and reckon with boredom or sadness or any of that stuff. And I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite, because I love to participate in all that stuff, too; it’s an inextricable part of contemporary culture, but I think that all of those things get in the way, and are in fact designed to get in the way of our being able to settle down and concentrate, and so we are creatures of habit; we learn things by doing them. If we’re in an instant gratification culture, we can distract ourselves at the drop of a hat in any one of a number of ways. It becomes harder to be able to shut that noise off and concentrate. So I think this is what creates the issue. As far as reading goes, reading is the same as it ever was.

SE: Chris was talking about being on fishing and crabbing boats, and without those types of distractions onboard, he was able to actually sit and read, and I found other students, myself included, saying the same thing: when [technology] is not available, we will turn to the printed word.

DU: I think that’s absolutely true, and for me, that even when those distractions are available, you just have to be more conscious. Part of the way The Lost Art of Reading evolved, I was noticing I was having trouble concentrating, trouble sitting down to read, winding down. I would read a couple of pages, get up and check my email, I would turn on the TV, I would do whatever.  I realized that I allowed so much of that noise to unconsciously colonize my life. So, for me, I just had to be more conscious. Is this going to be my reading/writing time, or is this going to be my screwing around on the Internet time? And then commit to both. I mean, I love screwing around on the Internet. It’s one of my favorite things to do. But I try to actually be aware of it while I’m doing it. So right, I’m going to spend a half an hour screwing around on the Internet. When I’m done, I’ll go back to work, rather than having it creep in and ruin my whole day. That said, it occasionally does creep in and ruin my whole day because it’s seductive.

We always have the sense that something is going on. It’s that same thing as, “Maybe that party is better than this party.” We always have the sense that there is something really, really cool and interesting going on out there, and that we want to be a part of it. That is really prevalent in social media. If you are an active user of social media, it kind of feeds on itself, but you keep checking back to see what is going on or be part of the conversation. Even if nothing is going on, or it’s mundane, or silly, or whatever, we have this sense that if we are not on top of it, we’re missing out on something. And that is often, almost always, not the case. But I also think it’s also true in reading, in writing; if we’re not participating, we are missing out on something.

SE: You write a lot about finding the silence. My students are curious about how to find silence in their busy lives. One student asked a provocative question: What do we really find within the silence?

DU: It depends, but I mean, for me, it’s a couple of things. I love stories; I became a writer because I was a reader. One the reasons I became a reader is because I love stories; I love the experience of them; I love watching them unfold. I still do, and I think that there is, in part, an entertainment value to it. In part, I think there is an empathy value. I think we are narrative animals. As human beings, it’s part of what we do; it’s the most essential component of how we make meaning. We live in, to my mind, a chaotic universe; it either has no meaning or it has no meaning we can understand, so we are constantly having to take pieces of it and put them together in a way that has meaning for ourselves, for our families.

If you think about the way culture is constructed entirely of narrative—religion is based on narrative; politics are based on narratives or sets of overlapping or conflicting narratives; statehood and nationality are all a question of narrative; and every family has a narrative, may have several narratives based on who is telling that story; every individual life has a narrative—we tell ourselves certain stories about ourselves that reinforce our sense of self, or, if we want to make a change, allow us to change our sense of self.  We are constantly telling ourselves stories about how things are and what they mean. In a lot of ways, literature is a way to codify that impulse.

I don’t want to make the case that we read to become better people or read to learn. I read to engage, so the paradox is that you need to find that silence or that stillness inside yourself so that you can engage with someone else, or the writer you are reading, and form that bond of empathy. In that sense, it’s a two-part possession. We inhabit the books we read, but a piece of writing cannot come to life unless a reader reads it, whether it be active reading or act of animating that text and bring it to life. By that same token, though, that text, that writer, that writer’s voice, that writer’s perceptions, they inhabit us. We are in some way possessed by them, so there is a real blurring of the mind. It’s the only art I know that deliberately blurs the line, the line that divides us as human beings. When we are really reading, when we are really engaged in a text, we are in deep creative spiritual interaction with another human being, perhaps a human being who died a hundred years ago. It’s a remarkable thing.

SE: This leads into my next question. Right now, we are reading Poe, Melville, and Jewett. I would love you to tell my students why they should read these authors in the literary canon. Why read something a hundred or hundred fifty years old?

DU: I do and I don’t believe in the whole idea of the literary canon as a fixed thing. I mean, there are terrible writers in the so-called literary canon, and there are great writers who have not been in the literary canon—although I think that those are great writers.  I think we all create our own literary canon, and they include the writers who speak most to us. I think one of the reasons those writers have lingered is that they have spoken to readers over the years. Although Melville is an interesting case because he died fairly unappreciated as a writer, and Moby Dick sold 3,500 copies during Melville’s lifetime. It came out four years before he died. It was only in the 1920’s, when he was rediscovered by critics, that he began to assume the mantle that he has now.

I think the canon and how history remembers us changes. For me, it boils down to these two questions: If they are great stories, it doesn’t really matter when they are written. A great story is timeless, whether it is written in the 1820’s or written yesterday; it’s a great story. I think the other part of it is that it does connect us over time. People lived and breathed, and suffered, and loved in the same way that we do. They often go through the same things that we do. We recognize ourselves in their writing, the fundamental humanity that we share with them. We’re in touch with basic human desires, emotions, whatever.

One of my favorite books is The Confessions of St. Augustine which was written in 365 A.D. One of the reasons that book moves me so much is what Augustine is struggling with, which is the struggle to find meaning, to find something that lasts, to find a place for himself in the world; it’s exactly what all of us do now. It’s an extremely contemporary book, because the struggle to be human is the same, and that’s where literature is most important—the most important literature addresses the struggle to be human.

It’s important that it’s set in its time because we get a sense of how to live in those times and those places, a sense of how to live in 4th century Carthage, reading Augustine. We get a sense, depending what Melville you’re reading, of what it’s like to live in 19th century Nantucket or Manhattan. We get a real sense that the history books don’t give us, about the day-to-day experiences, that we all share the same humanity, no matter what—it’s the same if you go back to Augustine, the same if you go back to Melville, the same issues we are all wrestling with right now.

SE: I remember a quote you mentioned about this idea of time collapsing when you read St. Augustine or Faulkner.

DU: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past” [Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun] is a great quote and quite true. Yes, time does collapse in that way, and it’s an amazing thing.

SE: In class we were talking about the idea of empathy and compassion, and whether literature is a bridge to access those feelings?

DU: I think all art is a bridge to get to those feelings. I think literature, again, is a narrative form; we follow a character through time. Another key aspect of literature is that it’s an art form that exists in time, unfolds through time. We are confronting the object of a book, or the object of a story, or the object of a piece of writing, but we read it in time. It takes us a period of time, so it exists as something within the chronology of our lives, especially a book that we may take to read over a period of days or even weeks. So it becomes part of the fabric of our daily lives. Also, the narrative itself takes place over time, especially reading a novel. It takes place in one place in a character’s life and ends in another place in a character’s life. So that is important, the time element.

As far as the empathy part, how can it not? I mean, we’re reading about human elements, human beings, and someone, a writer, said, “If it’s not human, it’s alien to me,” and that’s exactly right. What’s more frightening? A supernatural evil or a human one? Not only can we imagine it existing, but if it’s portrayed in the right way, we can imagine it existing in us. Anything that blurs those lines makes us more empathetic.

I was just talking to my son about a journalist named Dave Cullen. In 2007 or so, Cullen wrote a book called Columbine which is about the Columbine massacre. One of the most remarkable things about this book is that the most sympathetic character in this book, and in some ways, the most tragic figure in the book is Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters, who was not the dominant of the two, who was sort of depressed and suicidal, and under the sway of this other kid; Klebold probably wouldn’t have done anything like this on his own, but he ended up in this situation. Not to alleviate him of any responsibility; he killed a bunch of people, including himself. But the tragedy of this kid is that it didn’t have to happen. He wasn’t the architect; he wasn’t the hate-filled one. The book makes the case that the other shooter, Eric Harris, was a psychopath. I’m not sure if that was true or not. In any case, Dylan wasn’t. You come away from that book with a very disturbing empathy, because you have a three-dimensional portrait of this incredibly confused, screwed-up, seventeen-year-old kid. I don’t know about you, but I certainly was a confused, screwed-up seventeen-year-old kid. So how can you not empathize?  You don’t emphasize with what he did, but you do empathize with who he was. It makes the story much more tragic, much fuller, much more moving, much richer, and much scarier in a lot of ways.

If that guy is just a monster, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be him, then it’s just the other, and you don’t have to wrestle with the implications of what he did. If that guy is someone you can imagine knowing, or even being for a minute, then you have to wrestle with the implications; that’s a much more complicated story. So, I think the empathy cuts both ways.

A writer here in Southern California named Reza Aslan is an Islamic scholar of the Muslim world and teaches at UC Riverside. He has written a number of books and edited an incredible anthology a couple of years ago, Tablet & Pen, which is a collection of writing from the Middle East. One of the intentions of the book was to create empathy, by creating for Western readers a collection of writing—fiction, nonfiction, poetry—from a region that is widely misunderstood and widely vilified, that would establish that most obvious and simple truth of all: that these are just people. Everyone is just a person wrestling with his or her own lives in various ways. It’s a remarkable book because of the writing he chose.

What is the value of empathy? Jane Smiley wrote that, if our leaders would only read more fiction, they would start fewer wars. They would be more empathetic to the idea that people are different from them. I don’t know if I would go quite that far, but I do think they would be more open-minded. I am not saying we should read literature as a corrective, or that it makes us morally superior, because I don’t believe that stuff at all. There are plenty of writers and readers who are as morally defective as anybody on the planet, but there is something about what literature opens up for us in a way that we have to get inside the experience of another person. It can’t help but make us empathetic.

SE: That makes sense. So any last words of advice for a class of about ten students, some unsure about why they signed up for a literature course in the first place? I keep asking them “Why read? Why do we feel compelled to read? What can reading bring to their lives?

DU: Besides all the things we’ve been talking about, I would say, keep asking those questions, those are the questions that engaged readers always ask. Again, I don’t believe in absolute statements. I don’t believe in the statement that reading is good; it makes you a better person, and that’s why you should do it. I mean, when I was a kid, my grandfather would get furious with me because I would always bring a book with me. I was anti-social. I would sit at the table with a book and read, and I don’t know if that made me a better person; it only made me a less social person. But I think it’s important to always ask those questions about anything we do. Why are we doing this? What’s the value of it to us?

For me, we always ultimately define things; it’s the most valuable filter in the world. It’s how I understand things first, whenever I’ve done any momentous thing in my life. I grew up in New York. When I decided I was going to move to Los Angeles when I was in my twenties, the first thing I did was get a bunch of books and read about it to know where I was going and what I was doing. When I got here, I found out there was more to it than the stuff I had read about. That was fine, too, but my first way in is always to read. It’s a filter, the first filter in which I engage. So if that’s your experience then the question “why read?” is a moot point. If that is not your experience, then it’s always valuable to ask that question. Why am I reading? What am I reading? What do I want to be reading? I also think these are the questions we need to ask as writers. In some way, all writers are trying to write books that they want to read, but that don’t exist.

SE: Chris, do you have any questions that came up while listening to David talk?

Chris Francis: Yes, I do have one. What inspired you to be a critic or writer?

DU: The honest answer, which is probably really simple, is that, when I was a kid, like I said, I really loved reading. I loved books. I don’t remember how old I was. I was pretty young, probably like eight or nine when I realized that books didn’t just exist, that someone had to make them, that it was somebody’s job to sit down and write books. I knew that’s the job I want. I loved the books so much I thought, “What a great way to spend your life.” I didn’t set out to become a critic; I set out to become a writer. I don’t see a distinction.

Being a critic is my day job. For me, criticism has been a really useful endeavor because it’s made me read more deeply and more closely; it’s made me pay close attention; it’s made me think about what I think about writing; it’s made me develop an aesthetic; it’s made me think what makes good writing. I wrote a review this morning, which ended up being all about empathy—writing about the character, a sort of bad guy character, an antagonist, but we end up having a lot of empathy because he’s painted in such three-dimensional human terms. So thinking about it in all these concrete ways came out of criticism.

I see the relationship between criticism and creative writing, or criticism and literature, as really, really important in terms of how we think about it. But the real answer is, once I figured out that somebody got to do this as a job, there was nothing else I ever wanted to do.

CF: Awesome, thank you.

SE: I think that’s it. This is great…I really appreciate your time. When I told my students of my plan to be their spokesperson, they were so excited, so I’m glad you were game.

DU: It was a great idea. Really useful. It was my pleasure.

David UlinDavid L.Ulin was the L.A. Times book editor from 2005 to 2010. He is now the book critic for L.A. Times and author of books such as The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith.

 The editor would like to thank the following students from Tillamook Bay Community College: Patrick Willison, Adrianne Madman, Nicolette Gibson, Chris Francis, Elizabeth Noregaard, Tamra Owens, Elliot Gomez, Christopher Dyrnes, Sarah Patterson, and Stephen Dyrnes.

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