The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Full disclosure: a former professor of mine wrote this book, and it was a professor I liked very much, so I suppose I’m biased. But I’m quite sure I would have liked this book anyway, and I did like it very much. My guess is that book bloggers who like books about books and reading will enjoy it as well, since it touches on a lot of topics that get debated on blogs: how to choose what to read next, how best to do that reading, “serious” reading vs. reading purely for pleasure, the value (or lack thereof) of keeping lists and making reading plans, the danger of technology pulling us away from our reading. This book is also great for anyone who feels uncertain about their reading choices and abilities. I want to recommend it to all the people I can think of (and it’s a lot of people, including many students, and including, sometimes, myself) who have ever expressed a doubt about their status as a reader. My guess is that it will make them feel much better.

What I liked best about this book is how successfully it makes recommendations and gives advice without coming across as preachy or judgmental. Jacobs has very definite opinions on things, but I got the feeling that he would not mind a little disagreement. His main argument is that you should read at whim and that pleasure in reading should be your first goal. He also believes that you should mark up the book as you read — or at least you should if it’s something more complex than a thriller that’s not meant to be analyzed that closely. You shouldn’t worry about reading a lot of books; in fact, he believes you’re probably reading too fast and should slow down. He strongly dislikes books such as How to Read a Book, and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die because they encourage the mindset of reading only in order to cross something off a list. Rereading is very much a good thing.

But the tone that comes across is warm and generous, not scolding. (In fact, while I was in the middle of reading the book, I tweeted something about being absorbed in it but allowing myself a Twitter distraction now and then, making a little joke about his title, and he tweeted back, “It’s allowed!”) Mostly, he just wants people to enjoy their reading and to read exactly what they want to, because that’s the practice that will make reading meaningful and take the reader in unknown and exciting directions. To complicate the reading for pleasure idea, he talks about whim vs. Whim. Lowercase whim is “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both.” Uppercase Whim, however, “can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” We learn, over time and by paying attention to our own responses and feelings, what it is we really want from books. We figure out when we want something challenging and difficult and when we want to reread an old favorite or to pick up a book we won’t have to think about too much. We figure out when to put down a book that isn’t working for us or to keep at it because we might come to like it later, or even because we think we might want to reread it in ten years and appreciate it only then. Reading for pleasure is not a simple thing — pleasure itself is not a simple thing.

One of my favorite sections of the book is on serendipity, the unplanned, unexpected discoveries when you read at whim and let accident guide you:

Fortuity happens, but serendipity can be cultivated. You can grow in serendipity. You can even become a disciple of serendipity. In the literature of the Middle Ages, we see reverence for the goddess Fortuna — fortune, chance — and to worship her is a religious way of shrugging: an admission of helplessness, an acknowledgment of all that lies beyond our powers of control. But in the very idea of serendipity is a kind of hope, even an expectation, that we can turn the accidents of fortune to good account, and make of them some knowledge that would have been inaccessible to us if we had done no more than find what we were looking for. Indeed, it may be possible not only to cultivate the sagacity but also the accidents. It may be possible, and desirable, to actively put yourself in the way of events beyond your control.

This is a philosophy of life as much as it is of reading, and I like it very much on both accounts. It can be wonderful when reading — or life — takes you in unexpected directions  (it’s much less risky when it’s reading we’re talking about, though), and it seems worthwhile to strive to be the kind of person who can take full advantage of, and indeed to seek out, the accidental.

Jacobs says his book is aimed toward people who find themselves struggling to read because of the lure of technology and their inability to concentrate after too much time spent multitasking, skimming websites, and following links. He does have a lot to say about this problem, but his potential audience is actually much wider: it’s anybody who likes to think about reading. It’s a book that will inspire you, I think, and inspire you not to read like Jacobs does, necessarily, but to figure out how to read like yourself.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

17 responses to “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

  1. What do you think the book has to offer to someone who has already figured out how to read like himself?


  2. “Disciple of serendipity”–that’s wonderful. It goes on my list.


  3. AR — well, if you like reading about reading, it’s enjoyable. Jacobs is a good writer, and I like reading smart people’s thoughts on the subject of reading. Also, if you like thinking about how technology is or is not changing reading habits, it might be interesting. But perhaps it’s just not the book for you!

    Lilian — isn’t that wonderful? I love that too. I hope you enjoy.


  4. I was just chatting with a friend today about the wonderful serendipity of bookstore browsing, which is so hard to duplicate in online shopping. We agreed it would be fun if online book sites had ‘browse the shelf’ options instead of those ‘if you liked this, you’ll like that’ or ‘people who bought this aso bought that’ ones. Imagine if you could run your eye along a virtual shelf and pick books out to look at, not because you already know you are interested, but because for some reason they catch your eye–that’s the charm and also the education of browsing in a really good actual bookstore (like the London Review Bookshop!). Are there any online stores that let you do this? We couldn’t think of any.

    You make Jacobs’s book sound well worth taking a look at.


  5. I’ll have to check this one out! I’m always interested to read about how others approach the act of reading.


  6. “Uppercase Whim”?!
    Love it!


  7. I love books about books and reading, and this one sounds very good. Thanks for the suggestion; I’m adding it to my list.


  8. Reading for pleasure is not a simple thing — pleasure itself is not a simple thing.

    Love this thought. And i love the idea of whim versus Whim, and the intentional cultivation of the kind of impulse that is our psyche telling us what we need. Sounds like a great read.


  9. I really like the sound of this book. I could definitely do with spending more time reading and less time being sucked in by technology.


  10. That sounds fantastic! Definitely going to take a look at this one — I need guidance on how to minimize distraction!


  11. This sounds delightful and definitely something I would enjoy reading. I figure that it’s a good book because he was a good professor rather than the other way round. Seems like he has a really good tone here, educational without being dogmatic, that must have communicated itself to you in the classroom. Non-preachy is always such a breath of fresh air!


  12. This book sounds so familiar, like I have read it, but it just came out this year, right? Even if it does seem familiar I love books like this so will have to get myself a copy. And how cool that you had him as a professor once!


  13. I can sometimes get bored or overwhelmed by repetition when looking at lots of books about reading – although they are certainly sometimes wonderful, I don’t mean that they’re not! (I loved The Heroine’s Bookshelf.) But! This one sounds great! I love the idea of considering our TBR habits. As far as rereading – certainly I’ve read SO many wonderful books that I’d love again and again; I enjoy rereading very much; but there’s so little time and still so many books out there I’ve not read yet. How does one choose? I wouldn’t say I have trouble reading – I read an awful lot – but never enough, because we can’t get to them all. I think this book may have something to offer. Thanks for the tip; I’m going to look for it.


  14. I have a funny mental image of him sitting somewhere tweeting back at people: “it’s allowed”; “it’s allowed”; “it’s allowed”; …

    I think most people are worried about their idiosyncracies and he seems from your write-up like he isn’t going to tell us “do this” or “do that”. Sounds like an interesting read.

    “…he just wants people to enjoy their reading and to read exactly what they want to…”


  15. “His main argument is that you should read at whim and that pleasure in reading should be your first goal.”

    I love the sound of this book–I think I do that but end up feeling guilty about it. After you mentioned it to me earlier I requested it from the library (and plan on suggesting it for purchase at the library where I work) and now have a copy on hand–think I might just crack it open tonight after reading your post. I tend to be insecure about my reading and even more-reading choices, so I am very curious about what he has to say about it all! Out of curiosity what class did he teach?


  16. I’m glad he promotes reading ‘at whim’ and encourages slow reading and rereading, and the very original idea of ‘cultivating serendipity’. As a ‘slow blogger’ I love all these notions. And since he ‘allows’ distractions, I suppose he would also allow taking time off reading to just ’empty’ the mind… that’s just about what I’m at right now. 😉


  17. Really enjoyed this review and am looking forward to reading this book sometime. Great time Sunday!


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