Book #64: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

This is the book that nearly derailed my 100 book challenge.  If I was a speeding train in this challenge, this slowed me to a craw.  And it wasn’t a bad thing.

I borrowed a copy of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs from the library, then filled it with sticky notes to remind me of favorite passages.  But it had scads of holds on it so I had to return it and all my sticky notes had to be taken out of it.  It’s a cryin’ shame, I tell you, a travesty.  But guess what I just discovered?  Goodreads will include quotes from the book in the entry information.  They won’t all be ones that stuck out to me in particular, but it’s a start.

I’ve long been an advocate of reading for pleasure and refusing to bow down to the shaming attitude that reading is either indulgent or should only be a tool for self-improvement.  So much damage can be done by treating reading like this.  I also dread hearing people say that they didn’t read something, they listened to it on audio.  Barf.  I’ll save that rant for another day.  But Jacobs takes my feelings on the subject and articulates them even better, since they are his thoughts and he’s spent more time on them.

However, I am guilty of kowtowing to the must-read book lists.  The Great Books, or the books one must read in order to be considered a well-read person, are just a form of reading snobbery.  If I aspire to read Great Books for the sake of being able to say I’ve read them, they’ve done me no more good than if I hadn’t read them at all.  Jacobs says:

“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.’”

Guilty.  Most of the time I read what Whim (as Jacobs defines it) decrees, but I do engage in “cosmical and ethical hygiene” on occasion.  That’s not to say Great Books shouldn’t be read, it’s just what your attitude going into the reading matters.

“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.”

And those dogmatic lists that you must read?  The lists are always incomplete, honestly, because individuals are so unique.  Now, I have to admit I love lists, but I treat them as facilitators to my reading life, not dictators.  But when I slip and start to defer to an expert who thinks he knows what I need to read, I’m handing over some autonomy and whim.  I like what Rudyard Kipling has to say, though, whom Jacobs quotes.

“If a man is keen on reading, I think he ought to open his mind to some older man who knows him and his life, and to take his advice in the matter, and above all, to discuss with him the first books that interest him.”

That’s what I’m talking about.  Find a mentor, if you need guidance.  I most often use writers as my mentors, but what I wouldn’t give for an older man or woman who knows me and my life, whose advice is important to me, and with whom I can discuss it with after.  That sounds like a dream.

Another “ouch” moment I had in reading the book was when Jacobs said that most people don’t want to read, they want to have read.  Holy cow, that skewered me.  I mean, 100 books a year?  I’m not focusing on reading, I’m focusing on getting it done.  This is what slowed me down in my reading because I decided I would rather enjoy myself, be mentored and taught by what I’m reading, and to catch up on writing about it.  I would rather do what I value then say I got it done.

But a not-so-small part of me is glad I didn’t read this book until I was two-thirds the way through the challenge.  I still like to have read a little too much.

There’s so much more to this book and I’m barely scratching the surface.  It’s only 150 pages, but slow going because each chapter is so much food for thought that I had to digest thoroughly before moving on.  Some sections I had a hard time understanding as well, so for those two reasons it got demoted to four stars.  But, by golly, I’m finding a used copy and marking that baby up.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars


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