Book Review: The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction

Add Alan Jacobs to the list of people who are both concerned and excited about how the act of reading is undergoing significant changes in the digital age. In The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction, Jabobs explores “reading” along many different tangents but remains centered on the theme of Whim at the heart of how we read (or should choose our reading).

Yes, we need to learn how to read. Yes, it helps to be guided to books by others. But the kind of reading that stick with us for life is with the books that we choose to read because there is something about the story or the writer or even the cover art, that pulls us in. Even in this age of digital text and hyperskimming/hyperlinking/hyperreading, our Whim in what we read can take us far, if we let it.

I appreciated how Jacobs pushes back against the scholars who say “this is the list of book you must read” as well as those who say “reading has changed and deep reading of books is no longer how people read in their lives” and instead, shows us how literature has the potential to transform our lives. Interestingly, Jacobs found a balance after realizing that his focus on deeper reading was waning and only found it when he bought himself a Kindle. The e-reader allowed him back into deep reading, he says. (I’m not sure that has helped me and when I use an e-reader, I find myself more distracted than Jacobs claims to be.)

In The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction, Jacobs explores the art of annotation (and pushed back a bit on the crowd-sourced annotations now available via Kindle and others as noisy interference to one’s own mind in the act of reading); of re-reading books at another age from when you first encountered them, so that life experience gives you another lens; about the beauty of discovering that book that changes your perspective forever; of getting lost in the story so completely that the world in front of you is the story itself, for a brief duration of time, anyway; the need for quiet spaces to get lost in a tome; and how educators can both be a shining beacon for emerging readers or a stoplight in the love of a good book.

Jacobs urges readers of all ages to come back to books. Not to abandon their skimming for knowledge in the data bases of our lives — all that online dancing from site to site, media to media — but to find the time to read deeply, too. Find the books you want to read and then read them.

“Don’t waste time and mental energy comparing yourself to others (readers), whether to your shame or gratification, since we are all wayfarers. Come to what you read with a charitable disposition; don’t expect to fight with the text, but instead seek to treat it well; be willing to meet it more than halfway, as though it were a guest in your home, which in a way it is.” — Alan Jacobs (p. 97)

I agree. You?

Peace (in the book),

One Comment
  1. I have not read the book, but will add this to my book pile for sure. From what you wrote, it reminds me a bit of Newkirk’s The Art of Slow Reading.

    The line “educators can both be a shining beacon for emerging readers or a stoplight in the love of a good book” makes me reflect immediately about my practice in the classroom. A colleague and I have been trying to model choice and self-selected texts while also trying to make sure that they do indeed read. We take one class out of every six-day cycle and offer it as a reading/library day. All we ask is that they track their pages read for us. Most say that simple acts holds them accountable to keep reading even when they feel they do not have time.

    Finding the right things to say and do to make ourselves beacons and not stop lights is at the heart of a lot of my professional thinking.

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