Book Review – The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionHello, dear readers.  I have just finished Alan Jacobs (not that new) book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  It is a short, highly enjoyable read.  (I notice that this blog can be incredibly biased:  I really only post book reviews when I like the book!)

This project originated in a series of blog posts and ended up in book form in 2011. Each “chapter” is relatively short, and has a cute title like “Whim” or “Slowly, slowly.”  The piece in its entirety is a lovely and endearing read:  encouraging us to read without guilt, read with abandon, and read how and what you want to read.  Read on a whim!  Blaze through a book!  Read slowly!  Read in solitude, but for company!  Read responsively and actively (make notes in the margins – engage with what you’re reading)!  Jacobs works in defenses of different modes of reading and different approaches for each mode.

When we read for pleasure we don’t, or shouldn’t, take notes: being rapt is then our only ambition.  When we read for information – the paradigmatic case being the textbook on the contents of which we are about to be tested – we had *better* take notes.  When we are reading for understanding, we may or may not take notes, depending on the context.  Sometimes we wish to be rapt or are caught up in the book regardless of whether we wish to be or not; other times we will strive for a more detached analytical mode… These can be dramatically different experiences.  Do the strategies and practices of the one kind of reading differ so greatly from the other that what we do in the one kind of reading has no bearing on the others?  Or, worse, could it be that the one kind of attentiveness is actually inimical to the others, so that the more we read in one way the less we will be able to read in the second and third?

I have recently started a book, Crazy Like Us, discussing how the American-centric view of mental health (definitions, research around, diagnostics, treatments, etc.) is being irrevocably exported around the world like an invasive species, outcompeting native versions and perspectives of mental health issues.  It’s been framing much of my thoughts lately about all issues, so I can’t help but apply it in a way to this book.  I wonder what people from other places and cultures have to say about reading:  what other modes of reading do they have that might be fun or interesting to explore?  Do parts of this book resonate more or less than others for them?

I love that in between beautifully written prose, the book is sprinkled with quotations from various souls – alive and passed – about reading.  Jacobs  works in bits from Machiavelli, Kipling, Nicholson Baker, Zadie Smith and many others, including a fair number of academics to round out his own perspective.

If you are a reader, I highly recommend this book.  I’ll just close with his close to the chapter on Whim:

So the books are waiting.  Of this you may be confident:  they’ll be ready when the whim strikes you.


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