Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fighting to Read

In his essay on the difficulties of reading in an age of constant connectivity (and how contemporary fiction may adapt itself to this environment), Tim Parks asserts that "every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for" (1). I've found that especially true for myself this week, as I've joined a book club and embarked upon a reading of John Knowles' A Separate Peace—a book that I haven't read since high school (or junior high?)—an activity that quickly left me struggling to stay focused.

Parks highlights a couple examples of pre-1980s literary prose (by Faulkner and Dickens, respectively) to illustrate his point that such texts were written in eras when readers were free from the demands of smartphone and laptop, ringtone and notification, to fully immerse themselves in richly detailed prose that does not lend itself kindly to the habitual pauses that pepper a modern person's daily life. Much as I hate to admit it, Parks' argument resonates with my own experience of changing personal reading trends. Well do I remember the days before laptop and smartphone when I often lost myself in the pages of book after book, reading such pre-modern classics as Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, and Lorna Doone not because they were on the curriculum, but because I simply wanted to and I had plenty of unfettered time. I also distinctly remember a time post-laptop, but pre-smartphone, when I finally managed to finish Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities during an unexpected eight-hour delay at the Mexico City airport. That may well be the last time I read a classic until now (2), and I feel quite certain that I would never have finished without the benefit of that "inconvenient" delay.
In his conclusion, Parks speculates that the writing style of contemporary fiction will adapt itself to a reader whose consciousness is much more divided than that of the person reading "fifty or even thirty years ago." While this may be true, I am hopeful that my new reading endeavor will engender in me both a more disciplined reading practice and a willingness to let go of the lesser demands of daily life. After all, there was a time when I got by perfectly well without the pings and prods of up-to-date information. Surely, I can do so for the evening hour or so it takes me to keep up with my book club.

1) Tim Parks, "Reading: The Struggle," The New York Review of Books (June 10, 2014)
2) Actually, the amount of fiction I read in general has dropped quite shamefully since I began my graduate student program. I keep hoping to reverse that trend, but there always seems to be another article to read first. This is an issue the Parks doesn't really address in his article. His suggestion that pre-1980s prose is not calibrated toward a life that is constantly checking-in with the cloud is quite persuasive, but he has little say about how that constant checking-in has fast become a responsibility of modern life. We are not merely short-attention-spanned wastrels; we are actively expected (by family, friends, and colleagues) to put ourselves on hold to ensure near-constant availability, and that's a whole other problem entirely.

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