The pleasures of reading in an age of distractionWorldCat•LibraryThing•Google Books•BookFinder
I read this aloud to Sara (and myself) from 22 May – 8 June. I quite enjoyed this book despite being familiar with some of the author’s argument due to reading his blog Text Patterns at The New Atlantis. I recommend his blog.
Jacobs is the author of several books:
- The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
- The Age of Anxiety, by W. H. Auden — a critical edition
- Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant
- Original Sin: a Cultural History
- Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life
- The Narnian: the Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis
- Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling
- A Theology of Reading: the Hermeneutics of Love
- A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age
- What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry [See his tumbler for links to all of them: http://ayjay.tumblr.com/ ]
I have a copy of Original Sin: a Cultural History from the library and am looking forward to reading it soon. Shaming the Devil and Wayfaring are also on my list to read. Perhaps I oughtn’t mention my TBR list as Jacobs’ has quite a bit to say about lists as he isn’t particularly a fan of them. His dislike goes more toward the lists of books that one ought read. I’m not so sure he’d be as anti to lists which are based on one’s own personal Whim and which remain fluid. Even if he is, I find my list to be quite useful for keeping track of things I am interested in. If by the time I might get to something I am no longer interested, or more likely less interested in it than in something that has come to my attention more recently, so be it. My list is nothing if not fluid.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
The author’s “commitment [is] to one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim!” (15). Later in the book, he distinguishes between whim and Whim.
In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge— …. (41)
The book is prefaced with a warning, if you will, to its potential readers.
Caveat lector : Those who have always disliked reading, or who have been left indifferent by it, may find little of interest here. But those who have caught a glimpse of what reading can give—pleasure, wisdom, joy—even if that glimpse came long ago, are the audience for whom this book was written ([vii])
I believe this is apropos. This book is for readers, especially those feeling like they have either lost their connection to reading or, at a minimum, are finding it difficult to concentrate and engage in reading in this day and age.
Many of the usual suspects are to be found here: Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, Nicholas Carr, Harold Bloom, Steven Pinker, Charles Dickens, Edward Gibbon, Rudyard Kipling, William James, Cory Doctorow, David Foster Wallace, Abbot Hugh of St. Victor, Clay Shirky, George Steiner, Ann Blair, W.H. Auden, and many others.
There are a lot of intriguing ideas to be found in this volume. For instance:
- 3 lessons taught by humility for the reader: hold no writing or knowledge in contempt; not blush to learn from anyone; when has attained learning, not look down on anyone else. (Abbot Hugh, 92)
- Deep attention reading has always been a minority pursuit (106); teaching of vernacular literature in university only ~150 years old (106); “the reading class” artificially high from 1945-2000 (107)
- the idea that one of the purposes of education is to instill a love of reading “is largely alien to the history of education” and of reading (113).
All in all, I found this an enlightening and entertaining read. While personally I feel a bit of the pull of distractions away from my pleasurable, long form, reading, I also know full well that the choice is mine. I can choose to step away from the technologically-generated “blooming, buzzing confusion” or not. I can choose to engage with the sustained thought of another or to allow myself to be psychologically conditioned to become unable to do so. I know which outcome I choose. Alan Jacobs makes an eloquent case for that choice if you find yourself as a reader needing some gentle help in making yours.
My main complaint is that I found his many asides/tangents distracting. Sara mentioned that perhaps that it was an artifact of the reading aloud. As in, reading to myself would be quicker and I would be able to keep the part prior to the aside/tangent in mind better so that it more easily matched up with the part of the sentence after the aside/tangent. Perhaps. Lord knows I use more than my fair share of asides/tangents in this blog and sometimes even in my academic papers.
So I’m not trying to be the pot calling the kettle black here and I did find that the asides/tangents often contained valuable information. It was just that the experience of reading through them distracted me and I often had to go back to the beginning of a sentence and reread it without the aside to make sense of it. I should mention that the book is written in a very conversational tone generally.
After looking back through the book, I believe that Sara is correct that it was my experience of reading aloud. She said she rarely felt confused by them and upon searching for specific examples I found it hard to find any good ones, although they seemed fairly prevalent while I was reading aloud. It seems the process of reading silently to myself while looking for them is an entirely different experience. Then again, I had read them once (and twice, often) already. Perhaps that is part of it.
A second minor issue I had is definitely my own fault. At the end of the book is “An Essay on Sources.” Now I should know enough to check the apparatus of each individual book before beginning it but I did not. Then again, a book that has footnotes seems like it would be clearer about its supporting apparatus. In the end, though, it is my own fault. Reading the source comments on each section as we respectively finished them would have been more useful than reading the comments for the whole book at the end. Perhaps I’ve learned a lesson.
Third, no index. I know not everyone uses or believes in indexes but they still serve a purpose; actually they serve several purposes. I have had need of one while writing this review (and my review is less than I wanted as I was unable to find what I was looking for) and no doubt I will have need of one in the future when I consult the book again. Even if this were an ebook it would still need an index. Full-text searchability would help but that is still not a conceptual index and can only find the strings that exist and not the concepts expressed via another string.
- Yes, we can!
- All in your head
- Slowly, slowly
- True confessions
- Abbot Hugh’s advice
- The triumphant return of Adler and Van Doren
- Plastic attention
- Getting schooled
- Quiet, please
- Once more, with feeling
- Judge, jury, executioner
- In solitude, for company
- How it all started
- An Essay on Sources
Summary: This was quite enjoyable; learned, yet casual, supportive and forgiving. If you are or, once, were a reader, you will find enjoyment and comradeship in this slim volume to help ease some of the anxiety you may be feeling in this age of distractions.
Lastly, for another, and a more ‘professional,’ review of this book see On the Desire to Be Well-Read by Timothy Aubry at The Millions. Honestly, professional or not, this is a sad little review and shows far more of the author’s personal issues with reading for pleasure than it serves as a review of the book Jacobs’ wrote. See the comment by Dan for a good refutation of the points in Aubry’s ‘review.’