David L. Ulin’s recommendations
My 14-year-old daughter, Sophie, is an indiscriminate reader. I don’t mean in terms of what she reads — her taste (“Twilight,” “Pretty Little Liars”) is quite specific — but how: She moves from print to digital, phone to iPad to computer, without a second thought.
I have to tell you that I love this, and not only because I love her. No, it’s the fluidity that attracts me, the flexibility, the notion that she is oblivious to the boundaries, a digital native for whom “either/or” is irrelevant in a world where the more interesting and engaging choice is “and/both.”
A certain blurring of the lines has been a hallmark of my reading this year also, albeit in a different way from Sophie. Although I spent more time than ever in 2012 looking at screens, the vast majority of my reading is still of the print on paper variety, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
As we move beyond the flashpoint of a few years ago, when everyone was obsessing about “the future of reading,” we see more and more that we don’t have to make a choice. Print isn’t going anywhere, and neither is digital, and that, to my mind, is a fine thing because the more options there are for reading, the more readers there will be.
These options aren’t only about hardware but also about content, as my 2012 reading goes to show. Many of the titles I found compelling were those that asked me to think about the act of reading: how I do it, what it means.
In “Building Stories” (Pantheon:boxed, unpaged, $50) graphic novelist Chris Ware demolished the very idea of the book, offering an oversized box containing 14 related comics that could be put together in any order: a meditation on both the way stories get constructed, and the collaborative relationship between writer (or artist) and reader. (“Literature,” as Kurt Vonnegut once said, “is the only art in which the audience performs the score.”)
“Building Stories” blurs a different set of boundaries also, between low- and high-tech. Its components come in a range of shapes and sizes, pamphlet to broadsheet; without advances in print technology, it would have been impossible to produce affordably. Here we see another way the digital revolution opens our expectations, offering not only new forms, new delivery systems, but expanding on the old. With “Building Stories,” Ware brings it all together: terrific storytelling, creative packaging and real interaction between reader and narrative.
Of course, there are boundaries and there are boundaries, and one I’ve long found fascinating has to do with the line between truth and imagination. Eduardo Halfon’s novel (or is it a memoir?) “The Polish Boxer” (Bellevue Literary Press, $14.95 paper) addressed this directly, telling of a writer named Eduardo Halfon whose grandfather survived the Holocaust, much as the author’s grandfather really did.
In “The Lifespan of a Fact” (W.W. Norton, $17.95), author John D’Agata and fact checker Jim Fingal took this even further, reconstructing their email correspondence about D’Agata’s 2010 Believer essay “What Happens There,” which took extensive liberties in describing the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager. The point is that all writing, of whatever genre, is constructed, which means we never know “objective” truth. It’s a position that almost requires a reaction; like “Building Stories,” “The Lifespan of a Fact” asks us to participate, to talk back.
In many ways, that has as much to do with the times in which we live as it does with books such as “Building Stories,” “The Polish Boxer” or “The Lifespan of a Fact.” So this year, for the holidays, I’m taking a page out of Sophie’s book and giving myself over to the ebb and flow.
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