Monday, August 10, 2009

Reading and Rapture

From David Ulin, "The Lost Art of Reading," in The Los Angeles Times:
We live in time; we understand ourselves in relation to it, but in our culture, time collapses into an ever-present now. How do we pause when we must know everything instantly? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?

This is where real reading comes in -- because it demands that space, because by drawing us back from the present, it restores time to us in a fundamental way. There is the present-tense experience of reading, but also the chronology of the narrative, as well as of the characters and author, all of whom bear their own relationships to time. There is the fixity of the text, which doesn't change whether written yesterday or a thousand years ago. St. Augustine composed his "Confessions" in AD 397, but when he details his spiritual upheaval, his attempts to find meaning in the face of transient existence, the immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide. "I cannot seem to feel alive unless I am alert," Charles Bowden writes in his recent book, "Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 244 pp., $24), "and I cannot feel alert unless I push past the point where I have control." That is what reading has to offer: a way to eclipse the boundaries, which is a form of giving up control.
Ulin evokes Winifred Gallagher's recent book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, an argument that we are what we focus on and that today's world is constantly pulling us in so many directions that we are in danger of losing the value of rapt attention and the depth of thought and involvement that can come of that.

While in the Adirondacks recently, I devoted my rapt attention to Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury, a study of the interacting lives of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. I had not realized that so much of America's literary heritage originated from a specific neighborhood in Concord. Among the other writers who lived there or were somehow associated with the group are Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, H.W. Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe. As Cheever notes, "From their collaborations with each other and the Concord landscape came almost every nineteenth-century American masterpiece--Walden, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Little Women, to name a few--as well as the ideas about men and women, nature, education, marriage, and writing that shape our world today."

I had previously read Susan Cheever's memoirs, Home Before Dark and Treetops, because of my interest in her brilliant and troubled father, John Cheever. Her fascinating study of this community of Concord writers and their interactions would be a great supplement to a course on early American literature.

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