Book Review: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionNew Year’s resolutions are meant to be broken, right? It only took one week for me to break mine. But, I am quite pleased to have done so.

I’ll blame it on Alan Jacobs, the author of what will probably become a book I will recommend to many people. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011) is the first book in a long list of books I intend to read in 2014. My New Year’s resolution was to read one book per week, and to write a review for each book. This is my first review, and it’s already late. But, like I said, I am pleased.

Alan Jacobs is the Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is a prolific author, having written about a dozen books and countless articles for various scholarly periodicals and magazines. He wrote Pleasures of Reading for those who have given up on reading for various reasons, but I think most prominently because of the nature of the world we now live in: a world of distraction (hence the title). I think anyone could benefit from reading this book, but particularly those who think they are not cut out for reading books because the world is making demands for their attention.

It wasn’t far into Jacobs’ book that I realized I was foolish to set such a strict limitation on my reading for 2014. It was this statement that struck me: “Read at Whim.”1 Note that the word Whim is capitalized. Jacobs is attempting to define a term that is different than how whim is typically used. Rather than referring to the sudden desire to change one’s mind (whim), Jacobs is encouraging readers to pick up books that they will love and appreciate, rather than to simply cross a book off a reading list. Pleasure and joy are the reasons for reading, rather than completing an assignment.

You can see why this changed my mind about my resolution. I had created a list of a couple dozen books to read in the first half of this year. I compiled this list based on recommendations from several people. I do not intend to change my list, but I will allow myself more flexibility in how quickly I read the books and for what purpose. I also intend to take Jacobs’ advice to allow my list to change. For example, since reading Pleasures of Reading, I added to my list (and already started reading) a science fiction book titled Anathem.

Originally, I intended to read one book per week for the purpose of writing a review and crossing the book off a list of recommended readings. Now, I intend to read the books for enjoyment and as slowly as I need to read them, in order to properly absorb the content.

This brings me to another excellent, and somewhat obvious, point brought up by Jacobs: read slowly.2 He makes an honest assessment of our true motives for wanting to read quickly:

I believe that most people read quickly because they want not to read but to have read. But why do they want to have read? Because, I think, they conceive of reading simply as a means of uploading information to their brains.3

I find his observation incredibly insightful, and true for myself. My desire for reading this year was to have read a list of books. In one short book (150 pages), I have been found guilty of poor motives, and been given an opportunity to read for pleasure rather than duty. I found Jacobs very encouraging and accessible. I know that he has a brilliant mind, and is capable of writing highly academic material. However, Pleasures of Reading invites readers to participate in Jacobs’ world of words with the only prerequisite being a desire to pick up a book and read. Although I did have to consult a dictionary from time to time, he mostly used familiar terms. What I struggled with most in this reading was my unfamiliarity with what he may have considered well-known authors. However, this is a welcome struggle, as it increases my awareness of good writing.

In the age of instant access to virtually all of the information in the world, there seems to be little value in reading a book from cover to cover. Unless, of course, there is a different reason for reading other than information transfer. This, I believe, is the main thrust of Jacobs’ book: reading for the pleasure of reading. Unfortunately, many people do not enjoy reading because it simply takes too much time and effort. If you are one of those people, I encourage you to pick up this short book by Alan Jacobs and give reading another shot. At the very least, he will give you some good explanations for why you do not enjoy reading, which may be satisfying enough.

  1. This term first shows up on page 13, but it becomes a theme throughout the book. []
  2. Jacobs dedicates the issue of reading slowly in a fairly substantial section in pages 66-78. []
  3. page 72 []

Leave a Reply