Greg'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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's review
Jun 09, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: reference, thought-provoking
Recommended for: Book lovers everywhere!
Read from August 09 to 30, 2011

I really enjoyed The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction! Alan Jacobs has written a wonderfully joyful treatise on how to keep alive the culture of reading. While those who insist on reading abundantly for pleasure will always be small in number, I agree with Jacobs that such individuals are critically important in our society, and that reading for Whim (as he describes) is an inestimably important component of a well-educated culture and person.

I was amazed at how well he was able to maintain the thread of his arguments through the book, while still writing in an engaging, even compelling, manner. He seamlessly integrates logic, science, prose and poetry, supposition, stories, and wisdom from various sources. His thoughts on Adler and Van Doren’s seminal work How to Read a Book are consistent with my own: it is a useful explication of how to access, comprehend, and retain the most information out of what you read, but at the same time it seems to me to take the soul out of reading, even to destroy any willingness or desire to read. It is an issue to which Jacobs returns often, and that underlies his notion of “Whim” as reason enough to choose to read.

Jacobs: “So we return again and again to our favorites, striving to calculate how best to maintain the magic.” The magic of re-reading is just that, I think, that one sometimes wants simply to be folded into the arms of a comfortable, familiar, even predictable story, where the characters come alive almost as old friends. I used to think I was the only one who would read books 3, 4 6, or 8 times…nice to know I have company.

Charles Simic: “Wherever and whatever I read, I have to have a pencil…so I can get close to the words, underline well-turned sentences, brilliant or stupid ideas, interesting words and bits of information, and write short or elaborate comments in the margins…I would love to see an anthology of comments and underlined passages by readers of history books…” This explains, partially of course, why mostly I prefer to buy my books at used bookstores. I love to see what others thought important (or dumb) and the marginal notes they made, and wonder what unique world view or personality quirk or personal experiences led them to their conclusions.

Nicholas Carr: “The problem today is not that we multitask. We’ve always multitasked. The problem is that we’re always in multitasking mode. The natural busyness of our lives is being amplified by the networked gadgets that constantly send us messages and alerts…and generally interrupt the train of our thought… As a result, we devote ever less time to the calmer, more attentive modes of thinking that have always given richness to our intellectual lives and our culture. [And] the less we practice these habits of mind, the more we risk losing them altogether.” True statement this. And, I would add, that need for solitary, peaceful, unhurried contemplation spills over into the spiritual, physical, emotional and other components of our lives, in addition to the intellectual.

Stefan Zweig: A book is a “handful of silence that assuages torment and unrest.” ‘Nough said.

And a fitting final quote, from Richard de Bury, an English monk and lover of books: “…in books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth the laws of peace. All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”
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