The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

[Amazon Link]

Back in 2018, I enjoyed Alan Jacob's book How to Think. When I noticed he had a new book out, I checked Portsmouth Public Library… argh, no dice. (And my backup plan, ILL via UNH, is not an option until the librarians get off their desks on which they've been standing, shrieking "Eeek! A mouse! Also Covid!" for the past year.)

But PPL did have this slim volume from 2011. And it turned out to be a win.

The author is "Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University, and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia." But don't let that scare you away. Professor Jacobs writes with minimal jargon, essential humility, insight, and considerable wit, for the layperson.

Reading the book is much like getting advice from a (very) learned, experienced friend on how to pursue your hobby/pastime/diversion of reading. At 150 pages of main text, it's more of a lengthy essay. Stretching it out over two weeks, my default reading period for library books, turned out to be a good idea: those 150 pages are dense, filled with ideas and observations that are worth mulling over, not gobbling.

Professor Jacobs is not a fan of what he calls the "eat-your-vegetables" approach to reading, where some authoritative sage provides a list of "must-read" books. (True confession: I actually have one of those books on my shelf: The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. I gave up on Recommended Author #2: Herodotus.) Instead, he suggests relying more on what he calls "whim". Suggesting you'll do better by following your own preferences instead of some guru. (He generally declines that role himself: whenever people ask him for book recommendations, he declines.) (But he won me over by intimating that he enjoyed reading Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Hey, me too!)

You (probably) don't want to spend your life reading pap. But what do you want to do? What are you trying to accomplish with your reading habit? Professor Jacobs teases out possible answers: knowledge, insight, joy, appreciation, character development. You can tame your "whim" by being more aware of your goals, of course.

In addition to the high-minded stuff, there's a lot of practical advice; if you're someone who like to annotate texts as you go along, for example, there are suggestions. Reading aloud versus silently? Reading books you've read before? How about poetry? Reading on a Kindle instead of a weighty tome? How to develop habits of concentration when your environment is full of "distractions"? (That's in the title, after all.)

Bottom line: if you like to read, but you have a vague feeling you'd like to read "better", Professor Jacobs is highly recommended.