Review: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Summary: An argument that we should read what we delight in rather than what others think is “good” for us.

Alan Jacobs is not among the prophets of reading doom. He believes we should actually read what we want to rather than following prescribed lists of “great” books that we ought to read. He argues that the most important reason for reading is that it is pleasurable rather than it being “good” for us:

“So this is what I say to my petitioners: for heaven’ sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, (or shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout…” (p. 17).

He proposes that we read “at whim,” that is, we read books when we are ready for them. That doesn’t mean we don’t read the great books. It means we don’t read them too soon. He also suggests that when we find works we like and wonder what else to read, that rather than reading books inspired by those books, we read upstream–that is, we read the books that preceded and inspired them. If we liked Tolkien, we should read Beowulf, a recommendation I agree with, especially if it is Seamus Heaney’s rendering! Now a more challenging one is his suggestion that, if we like Jane Austen, we read Hume, as many of her ideas come from him–but only under the sign of Whim.

Jacobs argues that one of the pleasures of reading is responding to the author and he describes the ways readers annotate their works and the value of this (he uses a mechanical pencil for precise underlines and sharpness of notes). Against those who worry that this will slow them down, he challenges the cult of page and book counts, contending that it is what, and not how much we read, that matters. He argues that many books become more boring the faster we read them, and that we ought to allow ourselves time to re-read, because we often miss much in our first readings.

Against those who complain of diminishing attention in an internet age, Jacobs contends that the thing that helped him most was getting a Kindle–it kept him reading, it promoted linearity, and allowed him to concentrate for a long time. Unlike reading on a computer or tablet, there are no notifications and no distractions or temptation to multi-task.

This takes Jacobs into a discussion of attentiveness and he introduces us to Hugh of St. Victor and the counsel of the Didascalion. He advises reading what we can, moving step by step, first cogitating and then meditating on the text, ruminating on it as a ruminant does its food. He contends that we need both the skills of skimming and deep and long attention, depending on the material and our reasons for engaging it.

Against those who want to turn libraries into chat-filled cafes, he argues that silence is often difficult to find, especially for the impoverished, who cannot afford the space. Libraries, or at least reading rooms, can be a place to preserve that. Against the contention that reading is solitary, he observes all the interactive possibilities from our engagement with the author to classrooms to book groups.

He concludes where he began, with the idea of serendip. Very little of our reading journey may be planned, though it may be cultivated, whether through Amazon recommendations, or the discoveries on the shelves of a bookstore or library. While pleasurable reading involves attention and the elimination of distraction, it should not be shaped by the shame or guilt of what one should read.

Like the author, I’ve been tempted at points by reading plans, and still wrestle, as a reviewer, with reading too fast, sometimes robbing myself of the enjoyment of a book. I no longer worry about reading plans, and usually have one book going that I just read for enjoyment. This was one such book, and I would recommend it for any who remember loving books, but for one reason or another struggle to read or get caught up in the tyranny of “should.”

3 thoughts on “Review: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

  1. This seems like such a no-brainer, but it’s a needed reminder to those of us who have a propensity to make lists and set reading goals–even the pressure of a TBR pile sitting on the end table can be temptation to read something when you’re not ready for it just because it’s been there for so long! It’s been such a change in my reading enjoyment to let myself read what I want to, when I want to. There’s nothing worse than postponing reading something you want to, because you feel like you should read something else, and then missing out on that ideal time/mental space for reading the book you postponed. I can’t count how many times I’ve read a book too late to enjoy it because of this very thing.

    Thanks for the review… at the risk of sounding like I’m putting it on my TBR, this seems like it would be a great book to read. At any time.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2022 | Bob on Books

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