The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs, Oxford, 176 pages
One of the pleasures of reading is the little resting places. Poems have stanzas; plays have scenes; novels have episodes. We can stop if we choose, take a breath, glance back, check our footing, and imagine for ourselves what comes next.
Oddly, in Alan Jacobs’s new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, this particular pleasure is thwarted. Jacobs instead gives us a 150-page run-on essay in which the only pauses are bold-faced subheadings stuck at irregular intervals to the beginning of paragraphs.
Like this. But often more cryptic: “Upstream.” “Kindling.” “Getting schooled.” Not for nothing is Jacobs, who teaches English at Wheaton College, a biographer of C.S. Lewis and an advocate of what he calls “whim.” My picking on the typography may seem petty, but it is actually much in the spirit of Jacobs’s book. He confesses at one point to measuring the margins—7 millimeters—in a paperback, irate because they are not wide enough for his notation in “mechanical pencil.” This is a writer for whom the details matter, and it is pertinent to ask why he would impede his own readers’ progress.
The answer is that Jacobs opposes hurry and haste, especially among readers. He wants us to slow down and, ideally, re-read. He succeeded in my case. I’ve had to read The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction three times, outline it on paper, and draft a partial index, all in order to review it—at which point the title took on the bitter flavor of old coffee and I began to feel a strangely urgent need to head out to the multiplex to see “The Green Lantern” or “Harry Potter and the Hangover, part 9.”
This is not to say that the book is all tedium. Jacobs offers numerous bits of sage advice, such as, “Come to what you read with a charitable disposition: don’t expect to fight with the text, but instead seek to treat it well … as though it were a guest in your home.” I hereby embrace that salutary principle. Let me start over.
You could pick up The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and pretend you had found a nice copy of one of those World War II books printed during the paper shortage where every page was as packed as an underground air-raid shelter, each word jammed to the next in stoic patriotic duty. Our duty, in Jacobs’s view, is rather similar to that of Londoners under the Blitz. We are to shrug off the cultural gloom, ignore the bombardment of dancing-with-the-millionaires TV, YouTubed, Facebooked subliteracy, as well as the heavy thumping of New Criterion defenders of high culture, and allow ourselves free-form delight in reading. All we need, says Jacobs, is “confidence.”
That, anyway, is where he begins. His initial assurance is distressingly subheaded, “Yes, we can!” and commences with a tale of his son’s inauspicious encounter with Mortimer Adler’s heavily injunctive 1940 semi-classic, How to Read a Book. Says the son, “Maybe I learned something about how to read a book, but after that I never wanted to read a book again.” That’s the spirit lad! Oops—I mean, Jacobs’s answer is to lighten the load by writing a 45,000-word inversion of Adler. If Adler says, “read the classics,” Jacobs says, “No hurry.” If Adler says, “Improve thyself,” Jacobs says, “Smell the roses.” If Adler says, “Be responsible,” Jacobs says, “Chill out.”
For my part, I would have said, “Son, don’t worry. You’ll find books you will want to read. Just avoid books telling you how to read other peoples’ books. They are poison. Treat them like rattlesnakes.”
Jacobs tried to defang the snake by declaring, “Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame.” I guess it is nice to have his permission, but that leaves some 44,814 words to go and not that much more to say. He does, however, complicate the picture. We are urged to follow our whims, to be sure, but not all whims are created equal. Jacobs distinguishes between whim and Whim, the lower-case version standing for “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost always leads to boredom or frustration, or both,” while the upper-case Whim stands for the part of ourselves “that knows itself and therefore seeks what is really good.”
This subtracts just a little bit from that carefree joy and “shameless” delight he had urged us to indulge in on page 15. In fact, the introduction of uppercase Whim on page 41 seems almost to banish that insouciance and replace it with the sort of moralistic edict that the opening pages denounced. This isn’t quite the reversal it might seem. Jacobs doesn’t abandon his scorn for reading lists or for people who tell other people the books they must read. Harold Bloom, who does just that, is Jacobs’s bête noir. Jacobs’s notion of reading at Whim is a version of “Know thyself,” with the codicil that such knowing will lead to rapt absorption in books that repay the reader with deep pleasure that will, all on its own, redeem the hours.
It would be churlish to reject such advice. Yet this is a book of small strictures, and I can’t help feel that they are not always very generous. He quotes writers such as Richard Rodriguez who in fourth grade “embarked on a grandiose reading program” based on the books his teachers told him were “important.” Rodriguez wrote his childish interpretations of the books on three-by-five cards and checked each book off his list “in a ceremony of great pride.” As an adult, Rodriguez looks back good-humoredly on this enterprise, but Jacobs reads it as a confession of gross error, as though Rodriguez had wasted his time in a pernicious habit.
Rodriguez’s reading lists become one of the leitmotifs of the book. More than 50 pages on, Jacobs is still castigating him for “seeking some kind of confirmation of his intellectual legitimacy” by keeping score and flogging himself “mercilessly through books that meant nothing to him just so he could cross them off his list.” Rodriguez was guilty of the sin of not “building his interior culture.” Jacobs suggests that rather than read like that, “to impress people,” you would be better off lying by saying you had read books you hadn’t. “Yes, lying is wrong. But sometimes in this world we have to choose among evils.”
I don’t find this persuasive. A child who is determined to read books beyond his level of intellectual or aesthetic development isn’t in any danger, and indeed may be better situated to one day discover his Whim and to know what to do with it. I am not in Rodriguez’s class of readers. The first “grown up” book I read on my own was in sixth grade—Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and I read promiscuously after that, probably more as Jacobs would like. But there was an element of vanity in my taking on more and more books that I knew weren’t kids’ stuff. And if I couldn’t comprehend them in a deep way at age 11 or 12, they nonetheless quickened my mind. Intellectual vanity in children can be a kind of stepladder to a more considered kind of reading.
Although it does seem strange to be writing about this. Our society as far as I know is not troubled by a surfeit of precocious readers who have chained themselves to the Bloomian canon.
Jacobs offers other morsels of advice that seem mildly helpful. He urges us to read the works that influenced or inspired our favorite authors. If you like The Lord of the Rings, read Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If you like Jane Austen, he suggests—seriously—that you tackle Hume’s Essay on Human Understanding. (I am not clear whether he thinks Jane was dipping into Hume as she wrote Pride and Prejudice, but he is keen on the idea that “impressions” play a big part in both the novel and the treatise.) And he stoutly recommends the importance of re-reading books. Jacobs confesses he once so disliked the writing of G.K. Chesterton that he “opened my back door and threw Chesterton’s biography of Francis of Assisi as far as I could.” But by re-reading Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday over and over, he conquered his aversion and can read it now with “absolute delight.” Jacobs thinks the kind of “attentiveness” appropriate to school conflicts with “deep attentiveness” appropriate to reading and recommends that we “extricate reading from academic expectations.”
One of the actual pleasures of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is Jacobs’s eye for arresting examples and quotations. I can best recommend the book as a florilegium of remarks on reading, from Machiavelli putting on his “courtly garments” to enter his library and sit down with “ancient men” to Darwin worrying that he trained his mind so well for “grinding general laws out of large collections of facts” that the parts of his brain needed to read poetry had “atrophied.” He quotes Auden returning to the writings of Kierkegaard 30 years after being “bowled over by their originality” and finding them ill-shaped and unconvincing. These overheard voices are often larger and richer than Jacobs, and he takes a risk in attempting to join them to his oddly cramped House of Whim. But they work—as windows looking out on meadows greener than Jacobs’s own.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.