The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs (Oxford, 176 pp., $19.95)
“The one prudence in life is concentration,” wrote Emerson in The Conduct of Life; “the one evil is dissipation: and it makes no difference whether our dissipations are coarse or fine.” But in an age that places a premium on multitasking, who among us can honestly claim to be concentrating on “one or a few points,” as Emerson urges us to do? Perhaps nothing has been harmed so much by the flood of data and information that inundates modern life as the practice of deep reading—or even, one is troubled to find, relatively shallow reading. Earlier this year I lent a friend my copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a modern fantasy novel that I last read as a teenager. A few weeks later I asked whether he was enjoying it. He had tried to read it, he said, but admitted it couldn’t hold his attention now that he had reactivated his Netflix account.
In his new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Wheaton College literature professor Alan Jacobs addresses the impediments to reading today and makes a case for reading as something for which we should lay aside, however temporarily, our passive entertainments. Jacobs is an affable teacher, given to using “we” and offering encouragement to “those who believe or fear that serious reading is beyond their reach.” To this end, he takes up the question of whether, having once lost the ability to concentrate on a good book, one can ever regain it. The author, himself a recovered casualty of technological distraction, sees reason for hope. He won the victory by fighting tech with tech—switching from paper books to Amazon’s Kindle, whose Next button occupied his twitchy thumb, freeing his mind for sustained attention to the text. Through the novelty of an e-reader he found a way out of what he calls “the Great Digital Skinner Box,” and he means to return, Moses-like, to set the captives free.
Jacobs’s “one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading,” and one of his few prescriptive statements, is, “Read at Whim.” He borrows this exhortation from the poet Randall Jarrell, though the capitalization is Jacobs’s own. Whim, he suggests, is not “thoughtless, directionless preference” but inclination guided by your natural desires, by what brings you pleasure. Jacobs conveys the joy of losing oneself in a good book and issues a bracing call to the life of a literary omnivore.
And yet something is amiss in his argument. Jacobs sets up an opposition between elitism and the “fine tradition of American populism”—and sides with the cultural levelers. He resists Machiavelli’s famous reverence for the great writers of the past, deeming it unsuitable for modern readers, “democratic and egalitarian as we are.” He scrupulously avoids separating literary wheat from chaff, wary of being deemed an elitist, that most damning of labels in a democratic society that has largely lost the ability to distinguish one from the other.
“We read what we want, when we want,” Jacobs declares proudly. “We are free readers.” Here it’s worth asking what it means to be free. Jacobs’s unstated answer is the standard one of late modern liberalism—freedom defined solely as freedom of choice. The classical conception of freedom—in which the object of desire toward which the will is directed is more important than the mere freedom to direct the will—provides a more satisfying answer, at least for the purposes of reading. In this view, liberty of choice is not the pinnacle of, but only the necessary condition for, true freedom, which consists of choosing well among available options. Reading isn’t so valuable an activity that it doesn’t matter what we’re reading, a truth Jacobs admits in passing but doesn’t explore.
The Pleasures of Reading is strongest in its riposte to moralizing postmodern academics like Martha Nussbaum, who would have all education in the humanities serve to indoctrinate students in “serious thinking about class, about race and gender,” as she wrote last year in the Times Literary Supplement. In June, Jacobs gave a lecture at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. in which he rejected such ideological programs and reiterated a point from his book: “Before it cultivates social, personal, or civic virtues, reading is first of all delightful.”
Elsewhere Jacobs has devoted a celebratory essay to the Harry Potter series; here he mentions deriving “vibrant pleasure” from Patrick O’Brien’s novels of nautical adventure. He refuses to provide much direction as to which books are worth reading. Though in his Potter essay Jacobs admits that Tolkien is a greater writer than J.K. Rowling, it’s hard to determine by what standards he judges one literary work to be aesthetically richer and more deserving of close attention than another.
Certainly those riches will be reduced if we’re compelled to read some works against our will, but here Whim—or the reader’s own pleasure—isn’t an adequate guide to books of enduring value. And yet some books do possess such value. To most lifelong readers, or music lovers, or film aficionados, it’s self-evident that certain creative works are more meritorious than others, that Woody Allen’s Manhattan says more about love and relationships than the formulaic romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan, or that Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” is richer than Ke$ha's “Tick Tock.”
Herein lies a flaw of Jacobs’s argument: his conflation of entertainment and pleasure. The two, though sometimes overlapping, as in a reading of The Pickwick Papers, should be distinguished. Surely we will not be entertained per se by a reading of Paul Celan, but his poetry magnificently rewards the careful, sensitive reader with intellectual and aesthetic pleasure. I don’t read Pindar or Patrick White for entertainment, but the pleasure I derive thereby, in addition to other benefits, is deep and real.
Jacobs treats the two as synonymous, saying only that pleasure and joy are “richer words” for what is often denigrated as mere entertainment. He means to rescue the pure delight of reading which many of us experienced as children from both the dry, prescriptive programs and reading lists of Thomas C. Foster and Peter Boxall—author and editor, respectively, of How to Read Literature Like a Professor and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die—and the “social and ethical hygiene” of academics like Nussbaum. But not only does his conflation of entertainment and pleasure constitute a lack of specificity, it also brings all literature, history, and philosophy down to the level of a simple pastime, one distraction among many. This leveling works directly against Jacobs’s purpose.
Jacobs wants to avoid putting literature on a pedestal. Literature as a religion, he said at his lecture, began with Matthew Arnold, that resigned religious thinker and poet who heard the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of Christendom and sought a new foundation for Western values. Jacobs, as he declared at the Hudson Institute, is an evangelical Christian; if anyone could be expected to dissent from the “do as you please” credo of liberal democracy, it would be a Christian professor of literature like him. Whim is all well and good as far as it goes, but that’s not terribly far.
Beleaguered twenty-first-century readers could benefit from the insight of a learned and sensitive guide like Jacobs. They’d benefit even more from a convincing explanation of why certain books are worth their time. The Pleasures of Reading, for all of its salutary advice and interesting anecdotes, doesn’t make that case.