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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

de Alan Jacobs

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The author argues that reading is alive and well in America. Millions of devoted readers support hundreds of enormous bookstores and online booksellers. Jacobs's interactions with his students and the readers of his own books, however, suggest that many readers lack confidence; they wonder whether they are reading well, with proper focus and attentiveness, with due discretion and discernment. Jacobs offers an insightful, accessible, and playfully irreverent guide for aspiring readers. Each chapter focuses on one aspect of approaching literary fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, and the book explores everything from the invention of silent reading, reading responsively, rereading, and reading on electronic devices.… (més)
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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.” ( )
  BobonBooks | Apr 21, 2022 |
Reading is for failures some say. Even Gorky was a big failure; that's why he tried to shoot himself…

Reading is a selfish thing. It's a pleasure and a necessity; it's something that sometimes must be done in secret, with difficulties: people forsake their dinner to be able to pay for a good read. I'm sure in the old days, grown-ups and kids took from what little they owned to pay a storyteller for his/her stories and if it's fiction or not is irrelevant. That's what we are: our imagination is addicted to stories; a scientist reading about the similarities between the scales of a crocodile and the feathers of a bird, a nurse student reading about the cell's metabolism, an anarchist reading about bomb-deeds or a billy-miller reading poetry: it's all the same: they have to do it. Some people feel the same about their bank account.

Of course, the people who tell us to read are the ones who make money out of our reading. There a whole lot of them out there, not only the writers but the publishers and marketing people. Are readers dupes? Do they end up with nuffin? If I hadn't been taken to reading I might have put some of my time into courtship, I might be married now, surrounded by happy kids. I'd be working too. The only creative thing I've ever done is make up excuses to the job-centre why I hadn't managed to find a job every time I went there. I was too busy reading to even look for one. There was always this or that I hadn't read. Booksellers always make you feel that you haven't really read until you've read something you haven't read. Even schoolteachers keep telling you to read. If I hadn't been so easily told what to do I would have saved myself from a life of reading? Had I read this when I was a teenager I might have given my mom some help with housework. But even my mom was duped because they told her if I read a lot I'd get one of the top jobs. Imagine that! They'd say anything to sell paper and ink, wouldn't they?

The above is a fictitious story (aren’t they the best ever..?). Short easily digestible 'truth' nugget: the Holy Grail of needing to read just one book (in this extension by reading short bursts of near nothingnesses), we do it all, right now! Comic, available in Hardback with free, placeholder and 5% off next purchase (have and be had, enjoy your day! Now smiley face I am your friend buy shite NOW. Like Jacobs implies and I also agree, books can be overrated - poems, plays, criticism, novels and even newspaper articles too. But the act of reading itself? This combines entertainment, enlightenment, boredom, thought, criticism, annoyance, love and quite a lot of skimming across purple prose about sunsets - and Eusébio, the greatest footballer who ever lived. That is life - in my opinion. Reading, that is, not Eusébio. In this age of attention span deficit, reading is an act of protest. It helps me direct my attention where I intend, instead of having it stolen from me. Having said that, fuck SF publishers for publishing shitty contemporary SF…



SF = Speculative Fiction. ( )
  antao | Jun 15, 2021 |
Although I liked this book by Alan Jacobs, it's really a matter of preaching to the choir. Jacobs notes that his target audience is really those who used to read for pleasure, yet now find themselves too distracted by other forms of media, too busy, or just plain unmotivated. Although I do sometimes fall into that category, I am too immersed in the world of books and information to ever really give up reading, and therefore, though this was enjoyable, I wouldn't consider it a "must-read" by any means. ( )
  resoundingjoy | Jan 1, 2021 |
A delightful book on the joy of reading. It was a pleasure to read. It confirmed thoughts I had on reading books and gave me encouragement to select and read books I enjoy. I liked his structure and section headings: Yes we can, Whim, All in your head, Aspirations, Upstream ... ( )
  GeoffSC | Jul 25, 2020 |
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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.
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For my students, with whom I have read, and will read, so much
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The author argues that reading is alive and well in America. Millions of devoted readers support hundreds of enormous bookstores and online booksellers. Jacobs's interactions with his students and the readers of his own books, however, suggest that many readers lack confidence; they wonder whether they are reading well, with proper focus and attentiveness, with due discretion and discernment. Jacobs offers an insightful, accessible, and playfully irreverent guide for aspiring readers. Each chapter focuses on one aspect of approaching literary fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, and the book explores everything from the invention of silent reading, reading responsively, rereading, and reading on electronic devices.

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