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Books, Guest Posts, parenting

Lost. By David L. Ulin.

September 9, 2014

By David L. Ulin.

(From: The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time)

I decided I would help my son Noah with The Great Gatsby. He didn’t ask, not exactly, but neither did he say no. First, I showed him some of my annotations: a galley of a novel I was reviewing, the marked-up copy of a text I was preparing to teach. He stood just inside the door of my home office, thumbing through the pages, smiling closely to himself. “You’d fail if you were in my class,” he said.

Noah was right, of course, for I am a minimalist when it comes to marginalia … or maybe, it’s just that, at this point, I know what works for me. Either way, I’ve developed my own shorthand for note-taking, a system of slashes and asterisks and underlinings that take the place of language, that serve more as memory triggers — cite this — than as the component parts of any intellectual or critical frame. It’s not that I mind highlighting passages that move me; in fact, I’ve grown so used to reading with a pen in my hand that I miss it, an almost physical ache, when I read for pleasure, as if in the act of annotation, I can’t help but take a deeper plunge. And yet, like Noah, I don’t want to be distracted, don’t want to be pulled out of the flow. The sample annotations that he showed me, a series of page spreads covered with small, precise loops of writing, made my head hurt, not so much because of the denseness of the commentary as because of how it cluttered up the page. Too many notes and it can get overwhelming, interposing the reader’s sensibility on top of the writer’s until it is obscured. To me, this is antithetical to the nature of the process, which is (or should be) porous, an interweaving rather than a dissemination, a blending, not an imposition, of sensibilities.

I didn’t say all this to Noah. Instead, I suggested a way to game the system, by using a version of my shorthand as he was reading and then returning to fill out his comments afterwards. I also offered to re-read the novel with him, so we could discuss it as he worked. He gave me another look, eyes hooded, skeptical, but again, he didn’t turn me down. “How far are you into it?” I asked, and when he said his class had already finished the first six chapters, I went to the shelves and took down my old Scribner paperback: the same copy I had read in high school, with that flapper face on the cover, outlined in the night above the gleaming chaos of electric lights, her sad eyes recalling the billboard of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, who watches over the tumult of the novel with a gaze as disconnected and impassive as that of God. I paged through the book to see what I was looking at. One hundred eighteen pages, not a problem. I could do that in a couple of hours. It was a Sunday afternoon in March, and the rest of the day extended before me like a question mark. I talk to Noah for another minute or two before he went off to his room. From behind the closed door, I could hear music — Green Day, the soundtrack to Rent — and the sound of laughter as he iChatted with a friend. I took The Great Gatsby into the living room and stretched out on the couch. “In my younger and more vulnerable days,” the novel opens, “my father game me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. … ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” There it was, right from the beginning, the classic Fitzgerald preoccupation with privilege and class. And then this: “He didn’t say anymore but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that.”

Unusually communicative in a reserved way. Here we had the essence of the father-son dynamic, evoked in less than a sentence, in six particularly well-chosen words. I felt a flash of recognition, of connection, felt myself slip beneath the surface of the language, felt the book rise up as if to swallow me. This was what I’d been missing, that full-bore immersion, that sense of taking the vertical plunge. This was what reading had to offer, that balance of first and second sight, of knowing and unknowing, of finding yourself in someone else. My first response was one of relief, and not just because I’d slid into the book so easily. It had been decades since I’d read The Great Gatsby, and I hadn’t known for sure how it would be. Rereading can be a tricky process, in which, for better or worse, you’re brought face-to-face with both the present and the past. It is different than reading, more layered, more nuanced, with implications about how we’ve changed. In her 2005 book Rereadings, Anne Fadiman traces the distinction between reading and rereading: “The former had more velocity; the latter had more depth. The former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story. The former was more fun; the latter was more cynical. But what was remarkable about the latter was that it contained the former: even while, as with the upper half of a set of bifocals, I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I’d read it.” That was true, although those memories sometimes turned out to be deceptive; I had lost books by rereading them, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, for instance, which I had loved in college but less so later, when I began to see it as a young writer’s pastiche, less about life as it really is than a naif’s projection of how life might be. This was my worry with The Great Gatsby, which Fitzgerald wrote in his late twenties. (The book was published when he was twenty-nine.) How much could he have known, especially about his own vulnerability and failings, about the way the world can take everything from us, our pride, our aspirations, our very hearts? This was why I admired his later work — The Crack-Up, The Pat Hobby Stories, The Love of the Last Tycoon — because, flawed as it was, it revealed a Fitzgerald beyond the stereotype, a damaged man, older and more weighted. “I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky,” he wrote in 1932, looking back at 1920, when This Side of Paradise had made him the toast of Manhattan; “I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.”

Here we see the blending of the personal and universal, the way Fitzgerald’s specific experience (riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky) bleeds into a broader human understanding of loss. The longing is almost palpable, the sense that joy is fleeting, that even the most profound satisfactions (I had everything I wanted) must fade beneath the press of time. Could the younger Fitzgerald have recognized this? The Great Gatsby shows he did. When Nick leaves Gatsby’s house for the first time, after a manic weekend party, he glimpses a similar sort of dissipation, the loneliness that comes encoded into the most frantic celebrations, the silence at the center of the world. “I glanced back once,” he tells us. “A wafer of a moon was shining over Gatsby’s house, making the night fine as before and surviving the laughter and the sound of his still glowing garden. A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.” It’s impossible to read these lines without thinking in some way, of Fitzgerald himself. “Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves — that’s the truth,” he acknowledged in a 1933 essay called “One Hundred False Starts,” published in The Saturday Evening Post. “We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives — experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.” That’s a great line, true of all my most iconic writers: Joan Didion and Jack Kerouac, Frank Conroy and Alexander Trocchi, and, of course, poor Malcolm Lowry, sitting on his beach in British Columbia, trying to write his way out of alcoholism and defeat. But it may be truest of Fitzgerald, who has long been misread as a social chronicler, tagged, like Kerouac, with the awful burden of being labeled the voice of his generation, until the particulars of his fascination, those two or three great moving experiences, are subsumed by another kind of myth. I kept thinking about this as I read the first six chapters of The Great Gatsby, kept thinking about the architectures we erect over certain books and authors, until their essence is obscured. This, too, I would suggest, is part of the problem, the way we talk around rather than about the books we read, the way we tend to focus on everything except the thing itself.

And yet … as that long Sunday afternoon passed like liquid honey, I began to drift. Partly, it was the silence, as amorphous as time passing. Partly, it was the light, slow and diffuse. Partly, it was exhaustion, which kept rising up to infiltrate the lulling heartbeat of the words. But most of all, I must admit, it was distraction, an inability to hold at bay the insistence of the world. I read for a bit, then clicked on the television, checked the news from Spring Training, watched some forgotten film. I called my wife, Rae, who was out with our daughter Sophie; I took the dog for a walk. I flipped ahead to see how many pages were in each chapter, as if to calibrate my experience. This is something I have always done, a way to position myself in a book. But such knowledge can be a two-way street, and on this Sunday it began to work against me, occasioning not anticipation but instead a kind of dread.

In the end, I forced myself to stick with the reading, if for no other reason than I owed it to my son. I wanted to set an example, to be a role model — but also to come to his rescue, to swim out into the shifting currents of the novel and carry him home. I kept thinking about a trip we’d taken to Hawaii a few years earlier, a family vacation to celebrate my mother-in-law’s seventieth birthday. Somewhere in the middle of our visit, Rae and Noah and I decided to go scuba diving, off a boat that trolled the reefs not far from shore. We drove up in our shorts and sunscreen, met the other tourists (a husband and wife from the Midwest, a small cluster of friends from California), chatted briefly about how little we knew. I’d gone on a couple of dives as a teenager, in the gentle waters of the Caribbean; I had loved it, and still remembered vividly the experience of flying across the surface of the ocean, dipping and rising with a slight kick of my flippers, submerging, rolling, free of gravity, passing above schools of colored fish as if I were one. The water had been so warm I’d worn a bathing suit and tee shirt; it was, as I recalled, like immersing in a giant tub. The first indication that this was going to be different came when the dive instructor laid several wetsuits across the aft deck and told us each to find one that fit. The second came as soon as we emerged from the chute of the harbor and turned into the open water of the Pacific. Immediately, we found ourselves buffeted by waves, pitched in sweeping rolls of water, although we were no more than a hundred yards off the coast. Rae was the first to succumb, before she could even get into a wetsuit; her face grew pale, her skin slickened, and then she was throwing up over the rail. She spent the rest of the morning lying on one of the benches that lined the mid-deck, face tucked into the crook of an elbow, eyes shut tightly against the rocking of the boat.

Noah and I fared better — initially, at least. (“Seasickness-wise,” David Foster Wallace writes in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” “it turns out that heavy seas are sort of like battle: there’s no way to know ahead of time how you’ll react.”) We got our wetsuits on, although the chop made balance difficult, and I could feel my stomach lurch. Off the stern, the ocean looked inviting, not just because it was cool and green but also because, the dive instructor kept telling us, once in it, we would be less susceptible to its movement, more a part of its ebb and flow. We went in as a group, and within a second I knew I was in trouble. The water was rough, up and down, up and down, a constant lapping. I put the rebreather in my mouth and let myself slip beneath the surface, but it was not much better down there. I could feel the currents, their relentless pulling, could feel the tug of the mask on my face. I began to breathe quickly, as if at the edges of panic; instinctively, I broke for the surface, for the reassurance of actual air. The satisfaction was fleeting, since as soon as I came up, I started bouncing. Water got in my mouth and nose. The boat was only a dozen feet away, an easy swim, but there was no comfort in that realization. Besides, my son was in the water, twenty or so feet down with the rest of the divers, and I had to keep an eye on him.

So I went back down into the water, back down below the surface once again. I angled towards the others, who were in a cluster near a guide wire, some of the more adventurous already branching off for the jagged architecture of the reef. Noah was easy to find — he was with the instructor, practicing navigation, the two of them swimming together nearly in mirror image, like an underwater pas de deux. I turned away, submerged a bit, swam off a little on my own. I was still breathing fast, but the panic had receded, leaving in its place a more general anxiety. This wasn’t diving as I remembered it. This wasn’t easy, this was a fight. The currents kept pushing me, first towards the shore, and then away; it was requiring all my stamina to stay in the general area of the boat. All of a sudden, I had a realization: I was, in the most literal sense imaginable, in over my head. Forty-six years old, out-of-shape, not the strongest swimmer, in waters more assertive than I had ever known. This is how people die, I remember thinking … and then I looked over to where Noah was still drifting and saw that something had gone wrong. I watched him point to the surface, watched the instructor shake his head no, then watched a cloud of something (it looked like fish food, although I later understood that it was vomit) explode from Noah’s mouthpiece as his body went slack. I turned and swam to them, moving as fast as the current would allow. I could feel my body start to rush with adrenaline, not a flood but a kind of steady growing tension, steeped not in panic but in fear. As I pushed through the tide, the instructor took my son’s arm and led him to the surface. I caught up with them just in time to watch Noah give a little shudder, as if he were coming awake. Behind his facemask, his eyes fluttered; I could see his chest move as the instructor held the mouthpiece to his lips. Get him up, get him up, I thought, taking Noah’s other arm and rising with them. And then we broke through. The air was a revelation, the sky blue and unblinkered, the ocean bobbing beneath us, our bodies bouncing up and down like corks. I spit out my rebreather, took a long breath as I maneuvered behind Noah, let him recline against my chest. I wrapped an arm around his upper body to keep his head above the waves. The instructor pointed towards the boat, which was still close, although we had drifted a little: maybe ten, maybe fifteen yards. Then he asked if I would be all right without him, and when I nodded in assent, he slipped back underneath the water and was gone.

And I know that there were other instructors watching. And I know that the crew of the boat was there to help. When I got Noah to the stern, only a minute or two after we had broken the surface, I was met by three men, all reaching out to grab his arms and legs, to help me raise him to the deck. Twenty minutes later, sitting on the deck myself, sipping from a bottle of water and looking at my wife and son, both now supine on those benches, sleeping off the experience as if it were a particularly nasty drunk, I could already see the contours of the story, could already sense the narrative it would become. But before it became a story, during that minute or two in the water, what I recollect most sharply is the sense that things could go either way. Ten or fifteen yards is a battle when you’re swimming against the current with another body in your arms, and it was in the last few feet, as we came up along the port side of the boat and had to turn to reach the diving platform, that I became truly terrified. In the movie Jaws — which I saw so many times as a thirteen-year-old that I can still quote large chunks of it verbatim — Robert Shaw, as Quint, recounts the saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, torpedoed in the Pacific on July 30, 1945, shortly after delivering components of the Hiroshima bomb. “Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper,” he tells Richard Dreyfuss, “a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He’s a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waiting for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.”

Shaw’s monologue gets it exactly right, the way I felt in the water also, my sense that if tragedy was coming it would be in these final seconds, that this was when eternity might bare its teeth. Although that didn’t happen, in some odd fashion, the feeling carried over, even after we got back to land. Two years later, listening as Noah complained about The Great Gatsby, I had a mental image of him floundering in the linguistic ocean of the novel, much as he had floundered in the Pacific on that diving day. I had the inspiration that I could come retrieve him, that together we could make it back to the boat.


Noah, of course, had other ideas. On Monday morning, while driving him to the school bus, I tried to talk about Fitzgerald, but he rebuffed me in the bluntest terms. “I’ve got it covered,” he said, when I asked about his annotations, and when I pushed a little, bringing up the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, he rolled his own eyes at me and shifted to face the window. “You know,” I told him, “I spent the whole afternoon yesterday reading to help you.” Even as I was speaking, we both recognized the emptiness of the guilt. Noah turned back towards me slowly, his gaze dark and indistinct. Don’t worry about it, I almost said, forget it — but it was too late. If the art of parenting is, as I often think, the art of keeping your mouth shut, here in the car, I had blown it. I had said too much.

And so I waited for Noah to deliver my comeuppance, in the way that only a fifteen-year-old can. When it came, it was surprisingly gentle:

“I didn’t ask you to help me,” Noah said.



DAVID L. ULIN is the author, most recently, of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, from which this essay is excerpted, and the novella Labyrinth. His other books include the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. He is book critic of the Los Angeles Times.


Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She is leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (sold out) as well as Other Voices Querétaro with Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp, Stacy Berlein, and Rob Roberge. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.

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  • Reply Joe Downie September 9, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Wow – that was an awesome read ! There is so much to take away from it, but especially the idea of things never getting better once you reach a certain point. Its something I think about fairly regularly, and one of the biggest reasons to continue dreaming of all the things that excite you ! That way you are always reaching – hopefully with a certain contentment along the way.
    Thanks for sharing !

  • Reply Barbarapotter September 9, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    What a great piece of writing.

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