The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

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On the Desire to Be Well-Read: A Review of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

I’ve been miserably, neurotically obsessed with becoming well-read for so long now that I sometimes hope I’ll get over my obsession simply out of boredom.  Bookstores make me panic; they’re just collections of shiny reminders of everything I have not and will likely never read.  Friends’ bookshelves, though they deviously keep secret which volumes have actually been finished, or for that matter opened, can ruin an otherwise fun party, leading me to wonder why I’m wasting my time engaged in the kind of idle chatter lamented by Heidegger, so I’ve heard, in the book I’m staring at, rather than spending that very hour pursuing the goal of finally reading enough so that I can stop flagellating myself and maybe go out and enjoy myself at parties.  A conversation with a colleague about the virtues of a handful of lesser-known works by a semi-obscure author, whom my colleague happened to re-read recently can precipitate a despair that lasts for days, during which I will try again vainly to increase my page per hour count, a numerical value that I will abstain from revealing here, because it’s just too depressing.  All of which is to say that Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is designed for me, for people who are as interested in “having read” books as they are in reading books; it is designed in fact to cure my illness.  Unfortunately, it does not seem to have succeeded. Jacobs positions himself as the heir to cultural authorities like Mortimer Adler, Charles van Doren, and Harold Bloom, who have sought to teach regular Americans how to appreciate literature, but he believes that his predecessors present reading as too much of a duty.  Reading literature, Jacobs argues, ought to be a profoundly pleasurable activity, one we engage in primarily for the sake of enjoyment, and not out of obligation.  We’d be happier, better readers if we stopped obsessing about what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, and what we haven’t read.  We should let whim, rather than guilt or shame, propel our reading choices.  Though he is a literature professor at Wheaton College, Jacobs acknowledges that universities are largely to blame for encouraging individuals to treat reading as a chore, valuable only insofar as it serves a higher purpose.  But, as Jacobs contends in one of the book’s most honest moments, reading is not a virtuous activity, and it does not strengthen or elevate our character.  Only by freeing ourselves from this misconception can we rediscover the private, at times anti-social joys of reading. There is of course another threat to the pleasures of reading, registered by the second half of the book’s title: the onslaught of distractions, the majority digital, that seem to consume more and more of our leisure hours.  Jacobs is not categorically opposed to gadgets; he credits his Kindle with reviving his own passion for books.  But he recognizes that they do pose a danger.  The problem, in fact, with relinquishing the sense of obligation associated with reading literature is that we may simply end up spending our free time watching Youtube clips of celebrity outbursts or liking our friends’ bland witticisms and culinary experiences on Facebook.  Thus Jacobs is forced to argue that reading literature is more satisfying than these other pursuits and habits.  He even distinguishes between “whim,” the “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both” and “Whim,” a kind of intuition based on “self-knowledge” that allows us to satisfy our most authentic cravings. “Whim” with a capital “w” requires self-cultivation and introspection, and thus Jacobs manages to smuggle back into the reading experience almost all of the aspirations and neuroses that his book promises to banish.  Ironically enough, The Pleasures of Reading tends to make one all the more anxious about one’s own reading habits.  How else are people like me supposed to respond to a book that painstakingly considers the question of whether to read quickly or slowly (slowly, says Jacobs), confronts the temptations of making lists of important as yet unread texts (don’t give in, he warns), and compulsively alludes to various canonical and non-canonical works (including Gibbon’s intimidating three-volume tome The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).  By his own admission, Jacobs is a recovering dutiful reader, one still slightly ashamed to have finished a disappointing second in a grade school speed reading competition, and who remembers the exact page he reached in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions before giving up.  The latter moment of clarity was liberating, he claims, but even now he can’t help but dwell upon his former compulsions. While it labors to disentangle pleasure reading from dutiful reading , Jacobs’s book actually serves as a reminder of the inseparability of the two.  Part of the enjoyment of reading a serious book or going, say, for a vigorous run is the belief that what you’re doing is difficult but good for you—that it offers proof of your character, even while it helps to build that character.  Your superego, after all, is really just your id redirected, as a certain prolific Viennese author of many important works that you ought to have read by now, insisted.  Jacobs observes, “the American reading public, or a significant chunk of it anyway, can’t take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty”—and though pleasure is booze and duty water in this metaphor, anyone who has enjoyed a good mixed drink knows that the ingredients need in fact to mix, to become indistinguishably combined in one smooth solution to be truly satisfying. Of course some people don’t need to mix their drinks; these people, whom Jacobs refers to as his “tribe,” can handle their pleasure straight, and they are clearly, in his view, the elect.  Paradoxically, in reserving his praise for this category of readers, those who read merely for pleasure and not in order to prove anything about themselves, Jacobs is, like any highbrow arbiter of taste, appealing to people’s aspirations.  The cultural elite, after all, has always consisted of those whose good taste appeared spontaneous, effortless, inborn.  Wouldn’t many savvy but ambitious middlebrow readers like to say and like to believe that they read solely for pleasure, that they find Shakespeare enjoyable simply because they are sensitive and intuitive enough to appreciate his wordplay, and not because they know they are supposed to appreciate it?  I’ve been struggling for years to become someone who reads solely for pleasure—at least since college when certain old-fashioned literature professors suggested that we ought to be experiencing the highest, most refined satisfactions in doing the assigned reading.  This was a kind of instruction far more daunting than anything devised by the most merciless of high school taskmasters.  These people were putting my very soul to the test.  And what if I failed?  What if I didn’t enjoy King Lear?  What did that mean about me?  Wouldn’t I have no choice but to find a way to make myself enjoy it? Jacobs would suggest that he is not celebrating an approach to literature specific to the cultural elite.  In fact, he praises the British working class for their reputed auto-didacticism.  Moreover, he is not saying that you need to enjoy King Lear.  He is simply advising people to read what they enjoy—and abundant references to fantasy and science fiction novels suggest that his tastes are fairly democratic.  But The Pleasures of Reading also features numerous casual allusions to serious, difficult authors ranging from Virginia Woolf to Leo Tolstoy to David Foster Wallace, and thus demonstrates a kind of cultural mastery that allows Jacobs to get away with his somewhat less canonical attachments.  Or to put it more strongly, his references to genre fiction actually serve as proof of his unimpeachable status as a cultural authority—one who is so well-read that he has the luxury to indulge his lowbrow desires, and so assured of his position that he is not afraid to publicize these desires.  Whether intentionally or not, Jacobs presents himself as a kind of ideal reader, as a model that he believes others ought to strive to imitate. As I was reading The Pleasures of Reading, I began to take pleasure in noticing the various rhetorical tricks Jacobs performs in order to avoid giving the impression that he is imposing duties onto his reader.  “If you want to understand Tolkien better you might want to start by reading Beowulf, and some of the Eddas and sagas of medieval Iceland, and then perhaps Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and it would even be worthwhile to get to know the nineteenth-century medievalism that Tolkien despised and against which he reacted, or thought he reacted.  Listening to the music of Wagner would help also.”  Quite an assignment!  But Jacobs is of course hesitant to tell us what we ought to do: we “might want” to peruse the items on this list, and though of course he doesn’t intend to tax us unduly, “perhaps” we could read Sir Gawain (not presumably in the fairly unreadable middle English), and if we’re still enjoying ourselves, it would “even be worthwhile” to study a relatively obscure movement from the nineteenth century. I’m suggesting here that Jacobs’s advice, like that of many aesthetes, turns the reader’s capacity for pleasure into just another test of his cultural status—and the effect of this kind of sly pressure is to make it more difficult to distinguish what we enjoy from what we think we ought to enjoy.  It’s possible of course that all of this is simply my own neuroticism talking.  Jacobs doesn’t seem to think that reading needs to be so fraught with complications.  Though he addresses his former doubts and obsessions, his attitude now seems to be remarkably calm, relaxed, and confident—which he demonstrates most conspicuously by writing in a graceful, readable style free of excessive qualifications or convoluted syntax designed of course to make reading his own book a pleasurable experience. In discussing a twelfth-century abbot’s advice on how to read, Jacobs remarks, “Let me risk one more Latin word here: for Hugh this meditation, especially on sacred texts, could best be achieved by ruminatio, a word which may call to mind something rather more highfalutin’ than Hugh intended.  For us to ‘ruminate’ is to engage in a pretty dignified, or dignified-sounding, act, but Hugh was thinking of cows and goats and sheep, ruminant animals, those who chew the cud.”  Yes, with this esoteric terminology, his text may suddenly sound just a bit mandarin, but he’s not terribly worried, and actually what he’s talking about is quite down-to-earth.  And yet this casual, unflappable tone conceals hidden labor, hidden angst:  Can I get away with a Latin term?  Only if I self-consciously acknowledge the danger I am courting while also humbly requesting the reader’s indulgence: “let me risk” does the trick.  But in case this is not enough, I’ll immediately adopt a populist vernacular, the kind of language ordinary people use when they talk about egg-headed intellectuals: thus “highfalutin.”  Of course nobody by this point is going to think of me as common folk, and so am I going to end up sounding inauthentic?  No: they’ll read this moment as tongue-and-cheek.  But is it dangerous to use irony here?  Won’t that just reinforce the image of me as an elitist, out-of-touch intellectual?  Not at all: it just shows I can laugh at myself, and so that even as I make fun of my inability to sound folksy I’ll actually come across like more of a regular guy who isn’t really trying to place himself above his readers. In imagining the process by which Jacobs has arrived at these sentences, I am not trying to be mean-spirited; I am simply trying to suggest that a fair amount of work and struggle underlies his seemingly easy-going enthusiasm for literature.  Nor am I arguing that reading is not in fact pleasurable, or that pleasure is not one of the most compelling motives for turning to books.  I am simply arguing that the very sense of duty that Jacobs claims he wants to exorcise is a key ingredient in that pleasure.  And it is a key ingredient especially for the majority of American readers who are not as yet a part of Jacobs’s serenely hedonistic tribe, who are insecure about their cultural status and class position, and who are operating under the late-day shadow of the Protestant Ethic.  That feeling of almost existential satisfaction that comes from finishing a long difficult book, the sense that one has thereby inched upward toward that unlikely pinnacle of moral virtue, aesthetic sensitivity, and social status, accompanied by the anxious itch to keep reading more, keep climbing—this whole masochistic, complexly satisfying struggle, however illusory its object, is something many of us simply wouldn’t do without.  Reading features other pleasures of course, but a lot of people will continue to need a nudge, a dose of guilt, in order to experience them.  Especially given the multitude of other diversions, the kind that we are able to enjoy far more effortlessly than books, but which tend to make us feel lethargic, irritable, and aimless, we need some stern professorial curmudgeons—including Jacobs—to tell us, as we lurch toward our laptops and or our iphones, snacking some more, though we’re already full: you know, you probably ought to be reading a book right now.
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