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A chill descends on the life of the mind

The thin, undersized volume on my night table begins with this paragraph, written _ dictated, really, in the most astonishing way _ by a man serving a life sentence inside the Alcatraz of his own skin:

Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like an invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children's drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock.

I am reading this book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, because reading it is the least I can do, considering what the author went through to write it. Jean-Dominique Bauby, a Frenchman, had what the neurologists coldly call "locked-in syndrome." He possessed a luminous mind but, because of a stroke, could not speak or move except to blink his left eye.

The creation of these 132 pages was an almost unimaginable labor: A friend recited the alphabet. Bauby batted his eye when he heard the letter he wanted. The friend wrote the letter down.

Bauby died two days after the French publication of the book. I am reading the English translation because of how much he wanted me to.

But I am also reading it because of the language, because of the taste and texture of the words in my mouth. What a feast of phrases _ the poetry of room and gloom, the forward motion of "little tin cyclist" (with its spokes of I's and T's), the picture of the author dug into a rock, hermitlike and crabby.

Within a single paragraph I am enclosed in the diving bell of Bauby's mind, which is where he wants me, and where I want to be.

He's locked in. I'm locked in.

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Thousands will crowd onto the campus of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg next Sunday for the fifth annual Times Festival of Reading, where they will buy books by the bagful and listen to such authors as Carl Hiaasen, Gwendolyn Parker and Nat Hentoff.

Some of these readers will be seeking to understand the world, others to escape it. But virtually all will be looking for that locked-in feeling, that otherworldly, out-of-time sensation you get when you climb inside a book.

The festival is a week away, so we are thinking about reading. Time to consider the state of the art.

There is good news. It is delivered by Anthony Lane in the Nov. 3 issue of the New Yorker, in a piece called "The Return of the Slow Read." Lane notes that the bestseller lists are unexpectedly abulge with weighty literary works: Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Don DeLillo's Underworld, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Peter Nadas' A Book of Memories.

"At first blush, such a trend offers hope and relief to all the professional commentators, weary parents and publishers soured by gloom who decry the unslakable frenzy of our cultural appetites," Lane writes.

At this point you're thinking: "soured by gloom?" But keep reading.

"The thought that among the hundreds of lost sheep packed into a summertime screening of Batman & Robin there may have been one brave lamb who cast aside his Reese's Pieces, trotted out of the movie theater and went home to a scotch on the rocks and a chapter of Thomas Pynchon is enough to wet the eyes of the stoniest litterateur.

"Away with the bracing chill of the channel surfer! In with the warm bath of a good book!"

Except, you know, when Seinfeld is on.

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Reading is dead, of course.

Serious reading is, anyway. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that serious readers are people who spend all or most of their free time reading high-quality fiction, non-fiction and poetry from across a range of cultures, languages and eras.

Dead, dead, dead. A few oddballs and romantics still read seriously; everybody else has cable.

Including me. I read, but not seriously, or not seriously enough. Literary non-fiction, pretty good novels, Harper's magazine, a little poetry, the daily paper _ that's my fare. My greatest fear is that I will be asked to write a review of a newly published war novel, and that I will render my haughty judgment without ever realizing that the book is an update of Homer's Iliad, one of those unforgettable books I never read.

If serious reading is dead, and it is, then half-serious reading isn't feeling well, notwithstanding Pynchon's appearance on the bestseller list. Most successful books these days are written by celebrities, not writers. They're little TV shows packaged as books. And even those books are being returned in alarming numbers to their publishers, who squish them back to pulp or sell them by the pound, for use as coffee-table bases.

Here is the best evidence that reading is not in the pink: America's best-known advocate of great books is Oprah Winfrey, who made it onto the Forbes 400 by giving people something less worthwhile to do every afternoon than read. Next, Frank Perdue will become president of the Chicken Preservation Society.

You understood the Frank Perdue joke because you watch TV instead of reading.

Here's more evidence: The most recognizable person at the Times Festival of Reading by far will be Deborah Norville, a TV personality who has written a book about being a TV personality. Entertainment Weekly calls her book "candid and goofily chatty."

I'm thinking she did not write it by blinking her left eye when her assistant recited the letter she wanted.

But why be cranky? This is supposed to be an exciting time for our civilization. This is, we are told, the Information Age, in which we can know anything at any time: the score of a football game, the up-to-the-minute price of Microsoft stock, or the size, in square miles, of the island of St. Kitts (68, according to its Web site).

Alas, these facts mean nothing by themselves. It took me 30 seconds to find the square mileage of St. Kitts (this newspaper has a pretty zippy Web connection), but I still don't know anything about the place. This is not the Information Age; it is the Age of No Context. Surfing the Web is like looking at Picasso's Guernica from a distance of 2 inches. Hey, what's that red blotch?

To really know something, we have to read. But we don't, or at least we don't do it much, because reading is dead, or at least not feeling well.

See you at the festival!

+ + +

And yet, and yet, and yet . . .

My son is learning to read. The other morning I found him on the couch, trying to sound out the words in the book in his lap.

The book was Arthur's New Puppy by Marc Brown, a volume my son cares about largely because he has seen the public television show based on the Arthur character. I am grateful to TV for making my son care about books, just as the Romans must have thanked the Vandals for sparing the Colosseum.

To a kindergartener, English must look like hieroglyphics. I watched as my son struggled with a ruthlessly illogical language in which the sound of "A" changes from word to word: cat, gate, park. When the task of reading was too hard, he gave up and guessed.

This is the hardest thing he will ever do, I thought.

And the best. I will not subject you to a sermon about how Reading is Fundamental; you've already heard that on TV. But I'll say this: As I watched my son, I knew he was starting a new life, the life of the mind. Through books he will experience the world _ will visit Frank Baum's Oz and Martin Amis' London and Jean-Dominique Bauby's diving bell. Maybe he will carry on the family tradition and never read Homer.

Someday I will take him fly-fishing in Montana. I will hand him A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and invite him to read what an old man said about the time and water and words:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

Today is my son's birthday. He is 6 years old. If you don't mind, there is something I want him to read.

I AM PROUD OF YOU.

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