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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

The Pleasures of Reading, in short, is a pleasure – if you love to read. Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College, and this book obviously flows out of his passion for literature, but he takes a different approach to reading from that of many others. Where Mortimer Adler, in his classic How to Read a Book, offers a methodical method of reading and provides a list of “must read” books, and Nicholas Carr’s more recent The Shallows laments that few are reading books and even he is losing his ability to do so (p. 104), Jacobs breaks stride and suggests reading at “whim.” Rather than agonizing over reading the classics or reading quickly, or reading for information and out of necessity, he suggests we read what we want to read—that which gives us pleasure and joy (pp. 13-25). The overarching principle for reading is “Whim”— read for delight (p. 23). But the author goes further and distinguishes whim from Whim.  He defines whim as “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” (p. 41). With Whim the books that delight others need not delight us, nor should we feel obligated to be delighted. Instead, based on our own interest, we are free to enjoy the literature that we appreciate.

Jacobs acknowledges that not everyone has the ability for deep attention reading, which has always been a minority pursuit (p. 106). The extreme reader, he writes, is a rare bird—born, not made (p. 107). He is uncertain that an adult who has never practiced deep attention can learn how. But he is confident that anyone who once had this faculty can recover it (p. 116). It is for such people that he writes this The Pleasures of Reading (p. 108).

Along the way, Jacobs offers excellent advice for reading at Whim. While reading, as such, does not make anyone a better person (pp. 52-53), it provides many benefits when done according to Whim. Start by reading slowly and disregard speed reading (pp. 67-78). Mark most books (not novels) to foster retention and for reference (pp. 57-61). Since people have always struggled with distractions and the ability to concentrate (p. 90) he recommends seeking out solitude and developing a cone of silence (p. 117). Using other devices such as a Kindle (pp. 61-67, 81-82) might also reduce distractions. Since leisure activity is largely a retreat to the imagination, reading becomes the perfect leisure activity (p. 122), partly because “the point of books is to combat loneliness” (p. 135). Also, the act of read to others is associated with being loved, especially by children (p. 146).

The Pleasures of Reading is creatively structured. There are no table of contents, no chapters (just highlighted subpoints), no normal footnotes (but references in “An Essay on Sources” that concludes the book), and no indexes of any kind. And while this is creative, it is frustrating if the reader is trying to return to a particular subject. I found this design more distracting than helpful.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, probably because I resonate with these words, “…when the reason for our raptness is sheer and unmotivated delight. This is what makes ‘readers’ as opposed to ‘people who read.’ To be lost in a book is genuinely addictive: someone who has had it a few times wants it again.”

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 162 pp., hard $19.95.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel