Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Alan Jacob's The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is un-put-downable. The book is exactly what the title indicates, but what sets his book apart from many other books written on the art of reading is his charitable approach to the topic. Rather than offering legalisms, advice, or critical analysis of other approaches, Jacob's seeks to find the best in whatever he reads.

He also acknowledges that. although we might all know what we should do ideally in order to create space for reading, "should do" is always easier said than done.

His most fundamental advice to readers who ask, "What should I read this summer?" or "What are the best books to read?" is, "Read at whim." This is great advice, at least for those who no longer have a syllabus they need to accomplish for a class. "Read what gives you delight--at least most of the time--and do so without shame" (23).

I have found it to be the case that although in some ways new media distracts me from reading, I still read as much, perhaps even more, than I used to, and so I don't always resonate with the doomsayers who say new technologies and media are killing reading. Jacobs by and large agrees.

But the most winning thing about Jacob's book is how lovely it is. A long essay on the joys of reading, pure and simple.

"I simply want to emphasize that, having better understood the near-miracle of our ability to decode marks on paper, we are left with a truth equally remarkable: that some of us greatly desire to do so, and that some of us find abiding consolation in what we encounter when our eyes scan words on the page in those strange jerky saccades" (33).

"Let us start by returning to the case of the readers as a fan: the person who has read all the Narnia books or all of Dicken's novels, and who wonders where to turn, especially if fanfiction and professional sequels don't seem to help. One possible, and rather simple, expedient is this: we can turn our temporal attention upstream rather than downstream--toward what preceded Tolkein or Austen or whomever rather than what succeeded them" (43).

"If you write the question in the book's margins--even if you just scrawl a question mark--you are marking the scene of your confusion" (56).

"Though few people realize it, many books become more boring the faster you read them" (74).

Jacobs tends to like Kindles, as do I, something else we share in common. I so would like to meet Jacobs. He has won me over by his prose!

"This is why attentiveness is worth cultivating: not just because it is good for you or because it can help you organize your world, but because such raptness is deeply satisfying. It is, really, what Whim is all about; what Whim is for" (86).

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