Jacobs: The Pleasures of Reading

June 4, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
Alan Jacobs
(Oxford, 2011)
162 p.

Jacobs writes about the pleasures of reading, to be sure, but as a whole the book is more interrogative than simply appreciative. He wants to ask himself certain questions, and he invites us to ask ourselves the same: how do we decide what to read? how do we relate to what we are reading? how do we form judgments about what we read? why do we read in the first place?

As to how we decide what to read, he is resolute in his opposition to prescriptive reading lists. He is, one might say, prescriptive against prescription. Taking Adler and Van Doren as a foil, he argues, with moderate success, that ambitions to read “great books” are usually misguided, mostly because they outsource literary judgement and because they proceed on the basis of obligation rather than pleasure. If your reading consists in a great project to “get through” a list of classics, just for the sake of having done so, your reading is immature, impersonal, and not fun.

Instead, Jacobs recommends reading “under the sign of Whim”. Read what you want. Find books or authors that you enjoy, and follow the threads of connections with other books, authors, genres, and styles. Follow your nose. Do not let anyone else assign or evaluate your reading. His ideal of Whim is not thoughtless or arbitrary, but guided by literary judgement and self-knowledge. You should read what your soul desires.

This contrast between dutiful and whimsical readers is less sharp in real life than in the abstract, and Jacobs does take time to explore the complexities. Lists of great books can be helpful to readers who feel that there is something missing from their reading, who want a new challenge. And devotion to Whim can be narrowing, as he acknowledges. He cites the example of Edward Gibbon, who lived with regret at having not read better books when young, on account of his not knowing what the good books were. So perhaps the great books should be treated rather like seeds: fertile starting points, from which shoots and branches of reading grow.

But, all the same, despite the nod of deference he makes toward the “greats”, his aversion to planned or structured or prescribed reading is radical:

“I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan.”

To which I can only respond with an awkward silence. Or maybe not: time is limited, and decisions must be made. It only makes sense to deliberate about how one will spend one’s time, in reading as in anything else, and, having deliberated and prioritized, it’s simple good sense to follow through. This, at any rate, is how I decide what to read: I ponder, weigh, investigate, consult, prioritize, and proceed according to plan. The plan is not set in stone, but it does have a certain authority. I would never rather read an indifferent book over a fine one, under any circumstances, if I can help it.

A separate set of questions crops up when we think about how we read. We read newspapers (if we read them at all) differently from novels, and novels differently from poetry. Jacobs distinguishes reading for information, for understanding, and for pleasure. In some cases we stand in judgment over a book as we read, but in others we sit at its feet, ready to be instructed or transported; the trick is knowing when each is appropriate. He cites Machiavelli’s attitude toward the great authors of the past:

“When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for.”

For Jacobs a principal fruit of reading is silence, both interior and exterior, and one of the best motives for a consistent practice of reading is to cultivate this silence. Books foster attentiveness: “books are the natural and inevitable and permanent means of being absorbed in something other than the self”. He proposes as an ideal the experience of a child lost in a book, rapt. Not all reading can calls forth or deserves deep attention, but the best reading — reading for pleasure — does. Following the advice of Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon, he describes the experience of attentive rumination on a worthy text in which the reader returns to specific passages, arguing with them, or appreciating their savour. As a means of cultivating this practice, and of slowing down our reading, Jacobs recommends that we read, re-read, and memorize poetry.

Reflections on silence and attention naturally introduce the book’s minor theme: our age of distraction. Jacobs wants to engage the genuine concerns many people have over their sense of being harried, inattentive, and unfocused. In fact the book itself is partially pitched to those who used to be avid readers but somehow can’t muster the energy anymore. He offers no jeremiad; he is himself a blogger, and a twit, and he is candid about his affection for his Kindle reader. At the same time, he sees the problems these technologies bring with them, and he is at least willing to entertain the possibility that the best course is simply to shut it all off, or, if not, to at least regain control over what occupies our attention. He cites with approval this from David Foster Wallace:

“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Indeed.

As the book draws to a close, Jacobs turns his attention to how we evaluate books, and how our relationships with books can change over time. He gives some lovely anecdotes, as, for instance, about how Auden found his views on Kierkegaard changing over the course of his lifetime. In order to have such relationships, which are a means by which we can chart our own growth in maturity, it is necessary to re-read those books that have been important to us.

Speaking of Auden, Jacobs quotes his brief primer on critical judgments we might make about a book (or, for that matter, a film, or a piece of music, or any work of art):

“I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

It would be perverse if a book on the pleasures of reading were not itself a pleasure to read, but there is no danger of that here. Jacobs is an engaging writer. The tone is conversational, the book moves briskly across the terrain it needs to cover, and he salts his text with just enough exasperating and ill-conceived counsel that it held my attention throughout.

2 Responses to “Jacobs: The Pleasures of Reading”

  1. Mac Horton Says:

    I’ve been trying for several days to make time to comment on this. It’s an extremely intriguing post, and book, as I’ve been having a somewhat similar conversation with myself for a while now. I like the Whim counsel and sometimes follow it, not so much as a conscious choice but by following the path of least resistance. And it has never led me very far astray, because I do exert some control. I don’t, for instance, give very much indulgence to the “this is trash but I like it” component.

    But yet I’m very much aware of having enormous gaps in my education and of wanting and needing to fill them. And if I don’t go against whim at least part of the time I’ll probably never read, say, Don Quixote. I don’t especially like the idea of reading out of a sense of duty, but there are books that I am pretty sure I won’t enjoy very much, but which I think should be part of the mental equipment I bring to other books.

    I would never, though, even if I thought it the right thing to do, be able to construct, much less follow, a reading plan like yours. It’s admirable.

    • cburrell Says:

      I’ve been meaning to make time to comment on your blog too! (For the record: no, skin problems were not something we particularly contended against with our bichons.)

      I don’t have a “this is trash but I like it” category either. I suppose that would be what people call their “guilty pleasures”. I have that category for food, but not otherwise.

      The reading plan I linked to was my reading plan a decade ago, before I was married and had kids. It has been almost totally demolished, as you can imagine. However, I do still follow a reading plan — a much curtailed, more modest reading plan suitable to my station in life.


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