Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This is an exceptionally edifying little tome about how one might seek to cultivate and nurture a love of book-length reading in our digital age, whether one already has nurtured that love of reading or not. It's author Alan Jacobs' argument - as well as that of many others - that contemplative, lost-in-a book-style reading is at risk of being lost in an age of multitasking, beeping smartphones and the ever-present siren song of the internet, which both promises and delivers so much of what we want, (Thanks for reading my blog on your computer or your phone, by the way). I bought this real-live hardcover book in a real-live bookstore - something that's soon to be an anachronism. Bookstores, as we all note with some sadness, will soon be a place for collectors only, a place in which the only books are used books. The rest of us - and I gladly and somewhat paradoxically include myself - will be reading for pleasure on our Kindles, and whatever subsequent devices displace that one.

We all know the popular laments about bookstores and print - but what about reading? That sort of meal-skipping reading you did when you were a teenager, devouring Steven King or whatever, three hundred pages in all night? I was that sort of teen, anyway, and yeah, I read King's "The Stand" three times and still have fond memories of it. There are many who will tell you, with some evidence, that this sort of reading is in danger. Alan Jacobs' "THE PLEASURES OF READING IN AN AGE OF DISTRACTION" certainly highlights the danger, but this is no anti-internet, anti-Kindle screed. (Jacobs, in fact, strongly purports that the Kindle may in fact save contemplative, uninterrupted reading). It's a series of light admonishments for how to capture or recapture the sense of reading for pleasure, and the understanding & contemplation that goes with it.

Key among his recommendations is to first and foremost read what you want to. No "1,001 great books to read before you die" and the attendant pressure that comes from trying to read what others think you should. There's no master curriculum that can be tailored to every reader. Furthermore, Jacobs recognizes that at best only 30% of us are going to be true, avid book-readers anyway - in this age, in past ages and in the future. This is when we need to recognize the sad but inviolable law that 50% of the world's population is of below-average intelligence. (Shocking!). Gnashing our teeth over why more people aren't reading does nothing to make it better, as there are finite limits to who is actually going to pick up a 400-page book and read it start-to-finish, for pleasure or for edification. Jacobs thinks we should focus on our own wavering impulses toward reading, and make "whim" our guiding principle in choosing what to read: "Ulysses", a graphic novel, a crime noir potboiler or a Jane Austen period piece. Or whatever.

He's certainly convincing on these counts, as he is with the sort of self-coaching that's necessary to ignore the phone, the TV and the myriad ways to access the internet in favor of books, which obviously bring a mode of learning that affects the brain in deep-seated ways. I personally am trying to use my smartphone - Twitter, blog readers, sports scores and everything else - only in times that call for it, like when I'm between things or in transit. I'm trying to carry a book - or at least my Kindle- with me at all times, and as mentioned before on this blog, I've got an audiobook going in the car every time I drive. Somehow, I feel the better for it. This small book only helped to reinforce this self-discipline and I'd recommend it to any one of you thirty-percenters who might be interested in honing your own reading moxie.