Whimsical comments on The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Read this book as if you are having an evening chat with your English professor. If you do, you’ll enjoy it. Besides, to read at Whim is the argument of the book. I would have rated this lower, had a quit half-way through. Jacobs begins the book with strong words against the classic, How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren. (Admittedly, attacking a book I have loved is not a great way to endear me to his book. This is probably a big reason why I was so cool toward the book for the first half.) He sets them up as the paradigmatic ‘good books are good for you’ approach which foists giant classics lists at young readers, guilting them into reading them. This approach becomes the foil against which he presents his approach, to read according to Whim. The serious problem that I have with this approach is that it certainly seems like Jacobs himself doesn’t know what he means by this. There are points in his own argument where he actually admits that a given point he is making seems to (seems to!) contradict with his thesis. I think many of his later points actually do contradict his thesis, but this is simply because he thesis does not demonstrate clear thought. Generally I agree with Jacobs. And perhaps I might even agree with him particularly if we discussed this in person. But as a paradigmatic example of my frustrations with his argument, I’ll use the Adler/Van Doren example. Jacobs doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the highest degree of artistic enjoyment (and freedom!) is actually the fruit of long cultivation. Don’t we sit with envy watching the concert pianist play ‘at whim,’ wishing we possessed the skill to play with such passion and freedom? But this can occur only after long years of playing both (at times) at whim and (at others) decidedly not. Nor does he seem to recognize that many people read Adler and Van Doren because they already love reading. My experience with the book was absolutely nothing like what Jacobs describes. I poured through it eagerly, not out of a sense of intellectual obligation, but rather with a fresh sense that the tools therein might be invaluable to heighten my joy in reading. So to summarize, I’m seldom this frustrated by books that I end of liking. Four stars for sharing in Jacob’s love for reading (just don’t ask him what *you* should read–can one ask him for a wine recommendation?).

Quotable: Nicholas Carr, on multitasking mode

“The problem today is not that we multitask. We’ve always multitasked. The problem is that we’re always in multitasking mode. The natural busyness of our lives is being amplified by the networked gadgets that constantly send us messages and alerts, bombard us with other bits of important and trivial information, and generally interrupt the train of our thought. The data barrage never lets up. As a result we devote ever less time to the calmer, more attentive modes of thinking that have always given richness to our intellectual lives and our culture–the modes of thinking that involve concentration, contemplation, reflection, introspection. The less we practice these habits of mind, the more we risk losing them altogether.”

– Nicholas Carr, as cited in Alan Jacob’s, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, 84.

Quotable: Lewis, on reading

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented…. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.