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I am not sure when I stopped reading books. It is something I hate to admit. When a friend in my exercise boot camp asked recently what I was reading, I was forced to confess out loud to the rest of our sweating group: “nothing.” I meant I am reading magazines and newspapers and lots of information on the Internet but not books.
An embarrassing revelation from someone who lives under a Chinese banyan tree in a redwood cottage that bulges with more than 2,000 volumes ranging from Robert Fagles’ translation of the “Iliad” to Peppo’s “Pidgin To Da Max.”
Books surround me in every space except the bathrooms. Text calls out from every corner … read me, read me. And it is not just books on shelves. There are the piles of unread books beside my bed, building up higher and higher into something I have named the “Tower of Shame.”
I come from a lifetime of reading books, which began in earnest when I was about 8, grabbing books from my parents’ personal library. At that time, I picked out the thinnest books I could find on the shelves, with the notion that they were suitable for a beginning reader like myself. One was George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which I read as an entertaining animal story not the searing political satire Orwell intended.
Another of my choices was John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” which horrified me and left me unable to eat the grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches served by our maid for dinner that night because the squishy grilled tomatoes looked exactly like the reddish, burned skin Hersey described as peeling off a Hiroshima bomb victim’s hands in “huge glove-like pieces” when rescuers tried to pull her out of a river.
When our maid pestered me to eat the sandwich, I was unable to tell her why I couldn’t bear to look at the swollen, scorched skin of the grilled tomatoes.
Our maid was Japanese-American from Maui. Being only 8 years old, I wasn’t sure if she had heard about Hiroshima. I was worried if she found out she would be angry and scared.
Such was the power of a 117-page book to lift me out of my sense that everything was going to be alright.
As an adult, I remember coming home from hectic days of reporting at KITV-4-News to settle down after dinner to read the tiny print in a 1,456-page Signet Classic paperback edition of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” — all because my daughter, who was introduced to Russian literature at Punahou School, told me I should read it, that it was a good book.
She was right. “War and Peace” was better than good. Tolstoy could have been describing the experience of any soldier today when he wrote about the Russian aristocrat Count Nikolai Rostov’s shock in realizing he was anonymous in a battle, that he meant nothing to the French soldier rushing at him with a saber. “To kill me. Me, whom everybody loves so much.”
I come from a lifetime of reading books, which began in earnest when I was about 8.
Those words reminded me of the first time I was under enemy fire myself at a place the Marines called the Rockpile. I was afraid I was going to die. It seemed so strange and empty to think that the North Vietnamese soldiers furiously lobbing mortars at us didn’t even know me, whom my mother loved so much.
How can a person suddenly turn away from books after a lifetime of such deep personal reading experiences? I thought I must be one of the few serious readers AWOL from the printed word until I met David Ulin, the book critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Ulin was in Honolulu earlier this month as a visiting speaker and teacher at Iolani School. Iolani teacher and playwright Lee Cataluna thought I would enjoy meeting him because he had come to Honolulu on a fellowship partially funded by John W. McDermott, my late father’s business partner.
I started reading up before I met him and was surprised to find that Ulin had faced his own struggles trying to quiet his mind long enough to read a book.
Ulin wrote about this difficulty in an essay titled “The Lost Art of Reading” (L.A. Times, Aug. 9, 2009) and in the subsequent book, “The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.”
Ulin’s contention is that even die-hard readers like himself are drawn away from books in this era of information overload by the incessant buzz of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook posts, Google, emails, blogs and texts.
Books require a settling down he was unable to make himself do.
“How do we pause when we must know everything in an instant?” writes Ulin. “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?”
I identified with Ulin’s description of trying to read a book after coming home from work: “… after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my email, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page.”
He makes the point that as we hunch over our computers, we think we are becoming informed but all we are doing often is glancing over disjointed snippets of information.
Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote about this kind vacuousness in his New York Times article “Faking Cultural Literacy.”
Greenfeld writes, “What matters to us awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists – and having a position on it, being able to engage in chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.”
How can a person suddenly turn away from books after a lifetime of such deep personal reading experiences?
Ulin writes “…this, I think, is something on which we can agree: to read we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise, that seems increasingly elusive in our over networked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know.”
Of course the question is why bother reading a book, either printed or electronic, when so much information is available on the Internet?
Even though I don’t read books these days, I still wish I did because they transport us beyond lists of facts; they rescue us from the dit-dot nothingness of “what I had for breakfast” or here is a picture of my cat napping Facebook postings; books take us into other worlds, and into the lives of people we could never otherwise meet.
Ulin makes the point that in this era of distraction, reading a book makes us immerse, slow down, go deeper.
“Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only one in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We posses the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they posses us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them a part of ourselves.”
“Perhaps most important, there is a way reading requires us to pay attention, which cannot help but return us to the realm of inner life,” says Ulin.
When I was hiking to the Diamond Head summit just before sunset one afternoon with Ulin, he told me he that he found a “cure” for his non-reading by changing his job from book editor at the Los Angeles Times to book critic, a change that helped him focus.
Later, he told me more in a series of emails.
“As I mentioned, for me, the cure, such as it was, was really paying attention, realizing I could only do one thing at once. Partly that involved staying off email and the computer when I was reading, and partly going back to writing full-time. I really love editing, and could see myself doing it again at some point in the future. But at the time, I felt I wanted to go back to writing for a number of reasons, not least my ability to concentrate.”
I am trying to follow suit. I want to return to the time when I was reading books constantly; when I could become so immersed in the suffering of others such the Hiroshima victims I was unable to eat a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.
I want to once again find startling revelations hidden in books such as discovering that as a reporter in Vietnam I once shared the same fear of being killed by uncaring strangers as the Russian Count Nikolai Rostov of “War And Peace” in 19th Century Russia.
By losing myself in a book, I am hoping to find what matters.