For thoughtful Christians, reading comes close to breathing on the priority list. And reading about reading sounds like a double portion of dessert. Thus, I was delighted to pick up Alan Jacobs’ recent work The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011, Oxford University Press). As a long time professor of English at Wheaton College and frequent guest on the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Jacobs has helped many to appreciate good literature and the act of reading.
Not surprisingly, Jacobs’ book is well written and thought provoking. I found much of it encouraging and stimulating. He examines the unique experience of reading on a Kindle, the effects of the internet on concentration, the practices of note-taking, and several other reading-related issues. He interacts with others who have addressed similar topics, most notably Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in their landmark work How to Read a Book.
The most memorable parts of Jacobs’ book are his repeated encouragements to read what you like or, as he says it, “read at whim,” rather than to impress others. There’s a crucial difference between reading and being someone “who has read.”
I grew in appreciation for the fact that, as people created in God’s image, we live in the world of words, connect to God with them, grow closer to other people through them, enjoy them, and even play with them.
It was especially helpful to hear that there have always been distractions to make quality reading a challenge. There has never been a time when sitting still and entering the world of the text has been unhindered, natural, or effortless.
Ironically, I did not find a book about the pleasures of reading to be all that pleasurable to read. The overall effect was one of disappointment.
Early in the book, Jacobs argues strongly against Adler and Van Doren’s idea of reading for a variety of purposes: information, understanding, and entertainment. It is here that Jacobs proposes “reading for whim” to be the primary (maybe the sole) reason for reading. He paints Adler and Van Doren as taskmasters with their lists of “must reads” as if the notion of “great books” is something only for obnoxious elites. But later in the book he returns to Adler and Van Doren, almost apologizes for “speaking ill” of them, and says that his notion of reading for whim isn’t really all that different from their reading for entertainment.
And for all his talk of reading for “whim” and not worrying about tackling difficult books, he contradicts himself with a lengthy retelling of how he went from hating Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, rereading it because somehow he knew it was good for him (the literary version of eating broccoli), and then coming to the point where he sees it as one of his favorite books of all time!
He even admits that this whole process is “inexplicable” to him. I think he owes Adler and Van Doren an apology. They had an explanation for what he finds inexplicable – some books are worth the extra effort!
A few little points bothered me as well. The book has no table of contents. That longstanding device helps thoughtful readers quite a bit. Jacobs also wrote “an essay on sources” at the end of the book instead of simply listing endnotes or footnotes. If he quoted someone and you wanted to know the source, you had to wade through an essay at the end of the book. The traditional system is far easier to use. Sometimes the plain old method is better than the clever, unconventional, new one.
A few vocabulary choices disturbed me as well. Call me a prude but I wish he wouldn’t have used the word “damned” to describe the markings he’d have to erase if he wrote in a library book. It seemed like a frivolous profanity. And when he encouraged us to leave our cell phone in the car when we wanted to go into a coffee shop and read, he suggested we give it to our “spouse or partner.” I’m probably overreacting but in a day when gay marriage is in the news almost incessantly, “partner” seems like a loaded term. Perhaps Oxford University Press insisted he include the politically correct term. Or perhaps Jacobs wanted to be provocative. Given the topic of his book and his career in the world of literature, you’d think he’d pay more careful attention to words.
I also found the tone of his prose to be antagonistic. He went out of his way to say why he disagreed with so many people that, after a while, you just wondered if he was looking for a fight.
Despite its limitations, Jacobs’ work reinforced my love for books. It stimulated a wonder about reading I had taken for granted. It left me more motivated to find good books to tackle and encouraged me to pursue what Jacobs suggests as an important life goal for adult readers: “…to not love all books alike, or as few as possible, but rather to love as widely and as well as our limited selves will allow.”