Saturday, February 12, 2011


-- A reflection

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had that advantages that you’ve had.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby

AMONG THE MANY REGRETS I’ve earned over the past six decades, the greatest may be my limited exposure to literature. It was by design – a bad choice I’ve repeated throughout life. I graduated from Chico State with a BA having checked out only one book from its marvelous library – and I could not testify under oath that I actually read the thing. While a career in education prompted me to read and read and read a lot, what I read was always in the cause of education. As an elementary school principal, I promoted reading and literacy to parents and students knowing I hadn’t exposed myself to Dickens, Emerson, Ibsen, Kafka, Maugham, Pasternak, Vonnegut, or and of a number of giants whose works come up in conversation with unnerving frequency. I would nod and smile and look for a corner to crawl into.

Looking at the literary landscape now, I realize I am not alone in my choice to remain un-schooled in literature. It seems many of my baby-boomer brethren have also found other things to do more timely than picking up a good book and getting lost in it: Super Bowls, talk radio, video games, gardening, souped up cars, March Madness, mountain climbing, cable television, Twitter. Even motorcycle riding – gasp! The list of diversions is endless. But of these diversions, perhaps the greatest is work.

Real reading… demands space, because [it draws] us back from the primacy of the instant, it restores time to us in a fundamental way.
David L. Ulin (page 80)

My long-day work in school administration provided me with all the excuse I needed to remain ungrounded in letters.

THE OTHER DAY, quite by accident, I picked up an essay at my local independent bookstore – The Book Seller (46 miles away) in Grass Valley, California. I didn’t know anything about the author, but the title seemed to align with the content of three posts I’d made to this blog in the past few weeks. In The Lost Art of Reading, critic and essayist David L. Ulin lays out an indisputable case for finding the time and the space to read. Book critic for the LA Times, Mr. Ulin’s essay speaks to issues of disconnectedness and engagement; of wisdom and folly; and of the power of literature to impact people over time. He draws upon his love of books, the dominance of technology in his day-to-day, his interest in world circumstance and his life as the father of a fifteen-year-old to argue for balance in the demands placed upon all of us – and how reading can easily take a back seat to life. His “call to arms” essay is intensely gratifying. It prompts me to want to make up some lost literary time.

WHY SHARE THIS? I believe the discourse in our country – and our fundamental understanding of the tenets of our democracy are sacrificed when the bulk of the population – like me – doesn’t take time to immerse ourselves in the timeless thinking of others. When we do not engage in a conversation with the greats, when the last thing we heard we take as gospel, when we believe that those who are lettered are somehow elitists, when the immediate takes precedence over the greater good, the greater good suffers. Ulin suggests:

“If we frame every situation in terms of right and wrong, we never have to wrestle with complexity; if we define the world in narrow bands of black and white, we don’t have to parse out endless shades of gray.” (page 94)

“We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise, the tumult, to discover our reflections in another mind. As we do, we join a broader conversation, by which we transcend ourselves and are enlarged.” (page 151)

READING THAT FITZGERALD QUOTE the first time, I focused on those with whom I disagree and think how foolish they are. Reading again, I realize that the quote is about me. I came to understand that I am responsible for the advantages I’ve not had. Concurrently, I realized that I can do something about it.

“Hand me that copy of Dante.”

And here again is what reading has to offer: the blurring of the boundaries that divide us, that keep us separate and apart.
Ulin, (page 148)


Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading; Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2010. $12.95 – Please see your local, independent bookshop.

"The Book Seller" is located at 107 Mill Street, Grass Valley, CA. (530) 272-2131.

PREVIOUS POSTS that may relate:

Literacy Deficit: What?

Literacy Deficit: So What?

Literacy Deficit: Now What?

The whirlwind’s spent before the morning ends;
The storm will pass before the day is done.
Who made them, wind and storm? Heaven and earth.
If heaven itself cannot storm for long,
What matters, then, the storms of man?

Lao Tse in Tao Te Ching
as quoted by Ulin page 151, adding the comment:
“2500 years after [Lao Tse] lived and died.”

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. You've delighted my soul! You've given me faith in humanity! Reading is the key. I cannot wait to get this book. Thank you for your wise words.