A lot of people think that reading, especially critical reading, is on the decline. And when we do turn the television off long enough to read a book, we read the intellectual equivalent of junk food.
Alan Jacobs takes the opposite point of view in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He argues that not only is reading alive and well in America, but we suffer from confidence issues: we wonder whether we read well, with proper focus and attentiveness, and with genuine discernment.
Jacobs’ message is simple. “Read what gives you delight, and do so without shame, whether it be Stephen King or the King James Version of the Bible.”
Jacobs’ book is in contrast to the “more methodical and directive approach of Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book.
So this is what I say to my petitioners: For heaven’s 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—some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “cosmical and ethical hygiene.”
On Great books
Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed.
Jacobs is not alone in that thinking. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote:
When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit—for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.
What should you do if you’re reading a book that fails to delight you?
For if this particular book is not giving me pleasure now, it may give me pleasure later, if I allow it to do so. Maybe it’s just starting slowly but will pick up speed; maybe I haven’t fully grasped the idiom it’s working in but eventually will figure it out; maybe the problem is not with the book but with my own powers of concentration because I slept fitfully last night. …
Many maybes. But in any case, I have to decide whether to persevere, and for a long time my default position was to continue. Indeed, I was twenty years old before I failed to finish a book I had started: it was The Recognitions, a novel by William Gaddis, and I gave up, after an extended period of moral paralysis, at page 666. That day I grieved, feeling that I had been forced from some noble pedestal; but I work up the next morning with my soul singing. After all, though I would never get back the hours I had devoted to those 666 pages, the hours I would have spent ploughing through the remaining four hundred were mine to spend as I could. I had been granted time as a pure and sweet gift.
How to read a book and similar guides
And one of the primary reasons I am so suspicious of How to Read a Book and similar guides is that they promise to help us offload accountability for our reading: they say, implicitly, that self-knowledge and discernment aren’t needful because experts can take care of that for us.
For more on the subject, I highly recommend reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction in conjunction with How to Read a Book. Those of you interested in better understanding how technology affects reading—Jacobs is a fan of the Kindle—should add The Shallows, and Cognitive Surplus to this list. Make no mistake, these books won’t agree with one another, but they will expose you to different points of view.