The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Written by Alan Jacobs Reviewed By Ched Spellman

The literary landscape is strewn with signposts decrying the decay of print publication and robust readership. Can readers continue to flourish in the strange new world of new media? With this volume, Alan Jacobs enters the fray by examining the effect of this cultural climate on the task of reading. As a professor of English at Wheaton College, Jacobs is a vocational reader who has reflected on these issues carefully. With no traditional chapters, the book takes the form of an extended essay where each section or heading begins a new topic or idea. With this meandering format, each step further into the book develops an element of Jacobs's overall perspective on the task of reading.

Jacobs begins by pointing to the number of “devoted readers in America” and notes that there has been a “surprising uptick in the reading of literary fiction and other long-form works.” Contrary to the “lamentations of many contemporary Jeremiahs, the cause of reading is not a lost one by any means” (p. 5). However, many who share an enthusiasm for reading also lack confidence and “wonder whether they are reading well, with focus and attentiveness, with discretion and discernment” (p. 6). Jacobs explores the root of this anxiety by reviewing the main tenants of How to Read a Book, the enduringly popular guide for reading by Mortimer Adler. According to this approach, getting “the most” out of a book is the duty and obligation of a good reader. Reading, in other words, is fundamentally a “means of self-improvement” (p. 9). A characteristic example of this mindset is the “eat-your-vegetables lists of approved authoritative texts” in a given field that are endlessly (and usually annually) proliferated (p. 12).

Jacobs argues that this “strongly legislative tone is not ideally suited to today's habits of mind” (p. 8). Rather than pursing the didactic tact of telling us what to read, Jacobs seeks to describe how we read and presses the motivations for why we read. In stark contrast to duty-driven reading, the most prominent reason for reading in Jacobs's account is “that reading books can be intensely pleasurable” and that “reading is one of the great human delights” (p. 10). This type of reading is difficult because “a significant chunk” of the American reading public still “can't take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty” (p. 11). Jacobs seeks to articulate “a very different model of what reading can be all about” (p. 12).

His understanding of the task of reading forefronts a dual emphasis on reading for pleasure and reading at whim. These interlocking principles govern his remarks throughout and serve as the heart of Jacobs's contribution to this discussion. First, Jacobs seeks to convey his “commitment to one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim” (p. 15). He distinguishes between reading with “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both,” which he calls “whim,” and reading based on the guidance of “self-knowledge,” which he characterizes as “Whim” (p. 41). The reader governed by the “sovereignty of Whim” is one who reads out of desire and delight rather than duty or perceived accomplishment.

Though “reading at whim” might sound purely capricious, Jacobs connects this element with the “pleasures of reading.” He warns at the beginning of the book that his reflections are not for those who dislike or feel indifferent to reading. Rather, they are for “those who have caught a glimpse of what reading can give-pleasure, wisdom, joy-even if that glimpse came long ago” (p. i). His paradigmatic suggestion: “Read what gives you delight-at least most of the time-and do so without shame” (p. 23). Though “reading for fun” or “reading for entertainment” is sometimes derided, words like “pleasure” and “joy” are “richer words, with a greater range of connotations” (p. 17). For Jacobs, “It should be normal for us to read what we want to read, to read what we truly enjoy reading” (p. 33). Jacobs avoids saying that “all reading is equally good, equally valuable” (p. 38). However, his “standard of readerly value” is not matched to the informative or beneficial nature of a given work. Instead he appeals to “the standard of the reader's own pleasure-a criterion that sounds more simple and straightforward than it is” (p. 38). There is nothing mechanical or arbitrary about the act of reading and the joy it can bring. People read for pleasure and are deeply affected by scanning their eyes over marks on a page, and “this is a mystery” (p. 33).

The power of these two elements (reading at whim and reading for pleasure) is that they can help guide us as we choose from the many options that are always on offer. For Jacobs, becoming a “self-guided” reader is a more laudable goal than mechanically following a prescribed path that allows us to “offload accountability for our reading” (p. 43). Rather, the goal should be an “informed consent to Whim's sovereignty-without a teacher to direct us” (p. 43). This is Jacobs's overriding concern, to help individuals mature into certain types of readers, namely, ones in tune with their own readerly habits and desires.

The follow-up concern Jacobs addresses is how one can maintain this type of love and practice of reading “in an age of distraction.” Interacting with several forms of recent technology (e-readers, social bookmarking, etc.), Jacobs considers the implications of reading various types of text in online platforms. He also analyzes the notion of distraction in general and the effect it has always had on readers. The temptation to “rotate through the possibilities for informational novelty” is acute, especially for a generation of people who are “very rarely without the option of going online” (p. 79). This situation threatens “to return us all to virtual babyhood” (p. 79), where overstimulation is a recurring reality. The siren song of the link will indeed be irresistible unless “we do some work to alter our habits” (p. 78).

Recognizing that the recent technological paradigm shift creates a nexus of perplexing issues, Jacobs nonetheless argues that it is unreasonable to render technology as “the enemy of reading” (p. 82). Rather, “it's at least possible for new technologies to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem” (p. 82). But for many, there's the rub: “It's not hard to come up with handy-dandy practical suggestions; what's hard is following them-or rather, even wanting to follow them. What's hard is imagining, fully and vividly, the good things that happen when we follow through” (p. 84). The ability to read devoid of distraction is painful to lose and “worth cultivating” (p. 86) because “raptness is deeply satisfying” (p. 86).

The value of hermeneutical reflection on reading is the opportunity for the bewildered reader to “develop strategies of discernment” (p. 111). The call to journey deeper into the world of books is calling, but “you just have to practice to hear it above all those other voices screaming for novelty” (p. 133). One simple method Jacobs suggests is the countercultural practice of reading slowly (pp. 67-68). If reading really is all about the uploading of information, then slow reading would be intolerably deficient. However, Jacobs intimates that there lurks a more excellent way. Aside from information technologies, at a deeper level internal distractions are unfailingly present, and “the spell of reading is always in danger of being broken” (p. 124). In order to experience the fullest reading experience, one has to possess a “deep solitude” that will often times need to be created “by force of will sharpened by habit” (p. 125).

Jacobs's prose surely ambles but never seems to ramble. Along the way, he entertains a delightful assortment of variegated asides, including discussion of the cognitive processes involved in the task of reading, the stunning plasticity of the brain, the lurid myth of multitasking, the odious art of marking up library books, the joy of “getting lost” in a good story, Machiavelli's reading habits, and Harold Bloom's disdain for the Harry Potter series. Though most readers will recognize that there are certainly other modes of reading that must be pursued at times (e.g., digesting dense theological tomes!), Jacobs makes a persuasive case that reading for pleasure should remain a live option in any discipline. There might also be room in this account for further considering the distorting effects that sin can unleash upon our readerly whims and desires (i.e., What should we do if the “joy” of reading that Whim brings us turns out to be Turkish delight?).

The book as a whole makes many compelling points and refreshingly celebrates the God-given gift of reading in an age where texts are ubiquitous but often neglected. As he warmly reminds us, “The books are waiting” (p. 25). His waits as well. He has given us a rumination on reading that is instructive while also itself a pleasure to read. So, violating Jacobs's own embargo on mandating books for someone else to read, tolle lege . . . but only if you want to.

Ched Spellman

Ched Spellman is assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.

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