Author and former L.A. Times book critic David L. Ulin hasn’t given up hope for this ‘Lost Art’

By Christina Campodonico

David L. Ulin argues that uninterrupted reading can facilitate empathy
Photo by Noah Ulin

When David L. Ulin was book editor for the Los Angeles Times, you could say he was having a bit of an identity crisis.

Between juggling pitches from writers, maintaining conversations with publishers, assigning book reviews and editing them, plus keeping up with the 2008 presidential election, Ulin — a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and now author or editor of more than a dozen books — found it difficult to squeeze in uninterrupted reading time.

“There was so much noise, I couldn’t read anymore,” says Ulin. “I didn’t really want to admit that as the book editor of the paper, because I thought that was sort of … you might as well publish your own resignation letter at that point,” he says with a laugh.

Instead, Ulin wrote a popular essay for the paper about his utter state of distraction, and it grew into a book: “The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time,” published by Sasquatch Books in 2010.

Even though the book hit shelves nearly seven years ago, many passages seem to be speaking directly to our current political moment — when tweets from POTUS and White House press briefings are discussed as “distractions,” and “alternative facts” are proffered as reputable substitutes for the truth.

“This is how we interact now, by mouthing off, steering every conversation back to our agendas, skimming the surface of each subject looking for an opportunity to spew,” writes Ulin in
one passage.

“… Belief alone is now enough, in certain quarters, to give something the weight of truth,” he writes in another.

Indeed, several parts of “Lost Art” ring with an almost prophetic view of our contemporary political climate and the media landscape that shapes it.

A guiding light in Ulin’s book is a quote from a commencement speech given by President Barack Obama at Hampton University in 2010, which also seems especially timely: “… Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”

If finding time to read deeply and undisturbed seemed difficult before Trump’s ascension to the White House, it seems even harder now. How can anyone enjoy a long read when the foundations of democracy and truth itself seem to be unraveling right before our eyes?

Ulin, who visits Otis College of Art and Design on Wednesday for a public discussion about his literary life, spoke to The Argonaut last week about the state of reading in 2017.

Why did you decide to expand “The Lost Art of Reading” into a book?

Initially I had no plan to turn it into a book. I actually didn’t even want to publish the essay. But I had this really great editor, a woman named Orli Lowe. She really coaxed me into writing the essay. … That essay got a ton of response. Because so many people saw the piece, the publisher of Sasquatch Books asked me if I wanted to expand it into a book.

And there’s a book I’ve always loved since I read it, called “Ruined by Reading,” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. It’s sort of a memoir of her reading life, and I always wanted to write my own version of that book. And I began to think this could be my opportunity.

If you were writing “Lost Art” today — post-Obama, with Trump in the White House — what would you say about the state of reading?

I don’t know if I would tie it so directly to politics. I do think that reading, for a variety of reasons, is the thing that may — I don’t think it’s going to save us — it’s a thing that ennobles us, because it does connect us in all sorts of ways. It gives us information. It gives us empathy. I think I might focus on the reading of — or what appears today thanks to Trump, if there is anything that we want to thank him for — the resurgence of the mainstream [media]. Because newspapers and mainstream outlets are doing better than they have in terms of subscribers, in terms
of web traffic, etc. And I think that’s clearly in response to Trump’s inability to tell the truth.

What has been Trump’s impact on the state of reading?

At least for me, the Trump thing became so encompassing that it’s very difficult to read. In many ways, Trump is like an abusive spouse or an abusive parent — you’re sort of living from outburst to outburst and you have no idea what’s going to be the trigger, you have no idea what the volume of the outburst is going to be, or what the extent of the outburst is going to be. But you know when it comes you’re not going to like it, and it’s going to be dangerous. And so it’s hard to carve out the space [to read], simply because it’s hard to walk away from the information stream … because who knows what’s going to happen?

Do you think reading itself, not just journalism, is under attack from fake news?

I don’t exactly. Since the internet took over as a cultural driver, it gives us a lot more freedom. But it also gives us more responsibility because anyone, if they choose to and they have the skills, can put up a really good-looking website that is completely false, right? So we have to basically be more aware.

And I don’t think that’s a terrible thing. The problem now is that because of a variety of factors, we have, as a culture, kind of collectively appeared to have lost the ability to think critically. And what I’m saying is the kind of internet culture we live in requires us to think critically. We need to be able to assess the sources.

I hate to say upside or benefit, but a kind of unexpected something about fake news in the Trump Era is that I’m finding more people on social media checking their sources, or pulling back something if they post a story that they find out is untrue. So I think that if [fake news] opens people’s eyes to the need to be an active and engaged reader or consumer of information, then that’s a useful thing no matter what’s going on politically.

You say in your book that, “Reading, after all, is an act of resistance.” That sounds very political, but what does that statement mean to you now?

So for me the resistance question is first a more general resistance. What I was talking about there was that it’s resistance to the bullshit of the culture. It’s resistance to reality TV. It’s resistance to multimillion-dollar stock deals. It’s resistance to glitz and glamor and people’s fabulous houses. The first step is resisting that — resisting the superficiality, the flash and the ephemera — in favor of something more lasting and connected, because [reading] is one-to-one, and it is built on a kind of empathy or understanding or acceptance of each other.

It’s more a broad-based cultural resistance I was talking about in that instance. Although I do think that culture and art and literature, all of that is political. Everything is political.
You got your start at the late Los Angeles Reader. What are your thoughts on L.A.’s media landscape and how it’s changed?  

I miss and lament the loss of the alt-weeklies, which I was involved with fairly heavily. One of the great things when I got here in the early ’90s about the writing community — and I think it was defining in many ways, because it allowed the community to be cohesive and not overly competitive within itself — was that writers who didn’t write for Hollywood, no one really knew what to do with them.  It didn’t fit the paradigm. … And one of the things that has done, it allowed writers — it certainly allowed me as a writer — to develop kind of below the radar and to take risks and to do the kind of writing I might have not have done.

There’s a real value, when you’re starting to stake out territory creatively or journalistically, in not having that many people know what you’re doing or care until you’re ready for them to care, because the more people who are invested the more you kind of feel fenced in. … I’m not sorry to have had that kind of protection.

What made you want to become a writer in the first place?

I never wanted to be anything else. My father’s a big reader — thousands of books in the house. My mother was an English teacher. She brought an English teacher’s rigor to grammar and paragraph construction, which she taught me about. … When I learned how to read I became an obsessive reader. I lived among all these books. And so, I don’t remember the exact trigger moment, but it was really early, like 7 or 8, when I realized like somebody’s job was to make books. I thought, ‘Why would you want to have any other job?’

David L. Ulin speaks at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, in The Forum at Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Westchester. Free. Call (310) 665-6800 or visit otis.edu.