The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Jacobs begins with a defense of reading for pleasure. This pushes against the grain of common advice and specifically against the encouragement of Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book.

He also encourages reading at Whim and following our inclinations, not those we feel obligated by. The better we know ourselves the better Whim can guide us. Knowledge of the self guides us to what we need and what will give us the kind of delight we crave.

don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or…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” reading

Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame.

We read at a pace slower than our brain is capable of processing information. This is a result of the constraints of vision, not of mental processing. Our eyes can only take it text at a certain speed and even at that have to flit back and forth across the lines of a page.

Jacobs encourages reading all you can by an author you connect with. And when you’ve exhausted that list he suggests it’s better to read what influenced that author rather than what derives itself from that author. Go further up the stack of influence, not down into derivatives.

If you really want to become a better person, there are ways in which reading can help. But the degree to which that happens will depend not just on what you read…but also why and how.

Our annotations of a book are our means of interacting with it. If we read challenging books without a pencil in hand we are forgoing an opportunity for meaningful and substantive interaction that, if we record, our future self will benefit from.

He wonders (genuinely, not with scorn) how we can reproduce this style of interaction when reading in a digital format. Yes, e-readers have highlighting and note-taking features. But the mechanisms are different. He writes that his own experience is enough to suggest that technology is not the enemy of reading. Even the format of a printed book is itself a technology.

The speed of our reading is not the point. We pursue not a checklist of books to have finished but an experience and journey.

Reading is supposed to be about the encounter with other minds, not an opportunity to return to the endlessly appealing subject of Me.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is the perfect guide for those who don’t want to read but who want to have read.

We already know what we need to do in order to read more. It’s just hard and we’re not motivated. Our temptations draw us away and detract from our focus. The cultivation of attentiveness, though, has always been hard. Readers have always been frustrated by their distractions and modern technology is nothing new in that respect.

What reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head-on. The dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life’s lesser woes, and simply bask in everlasting present.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Abbot Hugh, a 12th-century monk in the St. Victor monastery, wrote a treatise for readers called Didascalicon. Jacobs quotes from it (or from a companion series of essays):

For the reader there are three lessons taught by humility that are particularly important: First, that he hold no knowledge or writing whatsoever in contempt. Second that he not blush to learn from any man. Third, that when he has attained learning himself, he not look down upon anyone else.

Jacobs suggests that we can modulate our attention to the type and demand of book we read, as well as our purposes for reading it. Here he does not entirely quibble with the framework from Adler and Van Doren: reading for information, reading for understanding, reading for pleasure. When it comes to note-taking his suggestions are:

  • When we read for information, we had better take notes.
  • When we are reading for understanding, we may or may not take notes, depending on the context.
  • When we read for pleasure we don’t, or shouldn’t, take notes: being rapt is our only ambition.

A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign.

L.E. Sissman

Not only do many of us read too fast but we are also too reluctant to reread a book. We can feel that we should already know the book when, in reality, we will know it more deeply through rereading.