How a Book Can Bring You Back to Life

My iPhone doesn't always cut it

It was about three years ago when Vince, my partner, found me sobbing in the car. We were parked outside a store, and he’d run in to get something. When he came back, tears were streaming down my face.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, alarmed.

“He died!” I wailed.

“Who died?” Vince asked, more alarmed.

“The old man! He died—and so did his dog!” This occasioned a fresh spring of tears. I mean, the old man was one thing. But the dog too?

As it happens, I hadn’t received an urgent call about an elderly neighbor and his poodle. I had simply arrived at a tragic passage in the book I was reading by John Galsworthy. I had fallen in love with the character of Old Jolyon, and had prattled on to Vince about him while I read. We both felt like we knew him.

After Jolyon’s death, I found myself taking more pleasure in the natural world on his behalf. I’d spot tiny mushrooms at the bottom of a tree or see a bird hopping back and forth on a telephone wire, and I’d think, “Poor Old Jolyon. He doesn’t get to see any of this anymore.”

I’d feel lucky to be alive, which is not a feeling that comes easily to me. But reading has often gotten me there.

Last year I began what I jokingly called “The Dickens Project”—an attempt to read everything Dickens wrote. For the months I spent with Little Dorritt, Hard Times, Bleak House and others, I’d think about Dickens at work and I’d get giggly and flushed with pleasure, as though thinking about a new lover. At home I’d make myself tea and read for hours. It felt delicious.

Then I got a job editing a technology website. Suddenly life was all about computers, the Internet and gadgets. At the same time, I’d hit a wall with Dickens (a wall named Martin Chuzzlewit), so I willingly embraced my tech side. It wasn’t long before I was totally obsessed with screens. Screw nature—what about the video of the baby who laughs at his dad tearing paper? My interest in the world around me lapsed. Vince no longer saw my face, only the top of my head as I hunched over my iPhone.

After about six months of rejecting musty books for pretty, slick screens, I hit a new low. I was streaming an episode of Dexter on my computer, surfing the web in separate windows, listening to the TV that was on in the background and playing with my iPhone—all at once. Doing one activity alone seemed insufficient; I needed multiple sources of stimulation and information. I had evolved—into a moron.

I thought back to the Dickens Project and it was like remembering a different person.

This weekend I decided to reconnect with that person. I put the computer, the iPhone and the TV out of my sight and picked up one of those old paper things with the static pages. I chose something I’d been looking forward to, composer Allen Shawn’s memoir Twin. It was the perfect choice, both breezy and trenchant. I read it in one day, and felt euphoric—not only because I’d managed to finish it, but because I knew the book’s finer moments would surface in the coming weeks when I least expected it.

Books can be read on screens, of course—I know that. I’m not a fusty oldster who isn’t hip to the Kindle. But it’s about making a commitment to a single line of thought. In the multimedia chaos of my regular life, screens make it easy for me to pay attention to 10 things simultaneously. But at home with a book on my lap, I lose myself completely—and even come to believe that an old man who dies with his dog was, at one time, truly alive.