Ryan Adair's Reviews > The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
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Dec 30, 14

bookshelves: wordsmithing
Read from December 22 to 30, 2014, read count: 2

Alan Jacobs’s book is about “reading well, with focus and attentiveness, with discretion and discernment” (pg. 6). We live in an age where reading doesn’t seem to be as important as it once was, an age filled with television and Google—instant search results. We read all the time; but the way we read has drastically changed. Instead of reading with depth and meaning, we read widely and erratically. We read a mile wide, but many times don’t understand what we’re reading, therefore only an inch deep. “But, all things considered, I believe that most people read quickly because they want not to read but to have read. But why do they want to have read? Because, I think, they conceive of reading simply as a means of uploading information to their brains,” Jacobs contends (p. 72). Are we really reading then? Or are our eyes just skimming the ink-filled page while we check books off our “to read” list? The author makes a strong case for us to read well, and to read with understanding, and to read with, wait for it, pleasure.

Many of us have approached reading as a chore, something we do to gather information and thus change the way we live or how we think. This has been taught to us from the beginning of our school years—we read for informational purposes only, not for joy. Jacobs sums up this point well when he writes, “It seems to me that it is not so hard to absorb, and early in life, the idea that reading is so good for you, so loaded with vitamin-rich, high-fiber information and understanding, that it can’t possibly be pleasurable—that to read for the joy of it is fundamentally inappropriate” (p. 17). And to show us it is pleasurable is what he aims to do, and, in my opinion, does very well throughout this work.

I love to read. In fact, I love to read books about reading and the reading process. That is why I picked up this book and latched on to every word Jacobs wrote. Another book that I read early on, and that influenced by reading abilities, was How to Read a Book—a classic. But I realized while reading Jacobs’s thoughts about this that I had been lied to. I have bought into the lie that reading is for information, to enhance myself as it were, and not for pleasure. People who read for pleasure don’t take life seriously I thought. The very idea that I read to gather information has made me read many books, but not read them well. Sure, some of them I’ve read well and even reread. But, if I’m going to be honest here, probably a good portion of them I haven’t. Early on in How to Read a Book states: “Of course, there is still another goal of reading, besides gaining information and understanding, and that is entertainment. However, this book will not be much concerned with reading for entertainment. It is the least demanding kind of reading, and it requires the least amount of effort. Furthermore, there are no rules for it. Everyone who knows how to read at all can read for entertainment if he wants to” (p. 16). The entirety of their massive volume talks about reading for everything but pleasure.

Is what Jacobs does, and does well, is encourage us to read for pleasure—to read at Whim. We need to read things we like, we need to read things we enjoy, we need to read things we are engaged in. Don’t read something because we know we need to read it; but read to get caught up in the story, to get caught up in the author’s point, to get lost in a world created in our own imagination. Read for the sheer pleasure of it. Again Jacobs writes, “Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed” (p. 23).

Part of the joy of reading, then, is to read according to Serendipity and Whim; not according to a set list, not according to a “to read” list just to make sure we can breeze through a lot of books in year. But we learn to read well, to read deeply, and to be surprised by the books we find. I found this book to be pleasurable, and one that I will return to again and again to be reminded of the importance of the Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

First read November 28–December 1, 2011. Read again in December of 2014.
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