The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of DistractionLiving in a housing community that boasts a pool and a spa, and in a city where the beach is a twenty-minute drive away, I have almost no excuse for not finishing my summer reading.  It happens every year—the list gets longer and longer, the titles are more ambitious, and the books go unread.  The reasons why are easily guessed—I have Netflix and an iPhone, and (more to the point) at the end of the day, I’d rather catch up on Mad Men than read War and Peace.  

Earlier this year, at the suggestion of our producer (himself a voracious reader), I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  It was a great book, but one point he made stood out to me particularly—the American reading public is under the distinct impression that reading is something that is ‘good for you’; that it refines the intellect and stimulates the aesthetic sense, and that it is primarily for this reason that people ought to read.  While Jacobs agrees with this, and acknowledges that reading for self-improvement is and can be beneficial, he’s concerned about the troubling effects this attitude tends to have on the reading public in general.  He acknowledges the helpful pointers and principles in Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler’s venerable How To Read A Book, but he questions the tone in which they discuss the purpose of reading.  The grave, almost severe manner in which they stress its educational and spiritual value leaves the impression that reading is first and foremost the duty of every intelligent person.  According to Jacobs, this idea permeates the pragmatic American conscious, which has little use for reading per se.  The mindset that reading is something we ought to do for material benefit rather than personal pleasure has, in Jacobs’ estimation, allowed a particular group (the so-called ‘Vigilant school’) to convince readers that they (Harold Bloom and Thomas C. Foster, specifically) ‘are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts’.  Jacobs believes that their strictures are more of a hindrance than a help:

“There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that Bloom’s approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—‘Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works’—or it can terrify them—‘How can I be worthy of this high calling?’”

The best reason to read, according to Jacobs, is because you want to.  Read at Whim, he says.

“Don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout.”

There’s a great deal to be said for eating organic greens, and I for one have a deep attachment to my elliptical trainer, but the point is well-made.  While I’m a firm believer in the benefits of intellectual exertion for the sake of personal improvement (as is Jacobs), his exhortation to read books for the pleasure they provide is helpful and timely—there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to read and wanting to have read, and in our competitive, image-driven culture, the lines get blurred very easily and very often.

With that in mind, we asked a few friends of ours to discuss which books they picked up this summer, and tell us a bit about why they chose those books in particular, what they liked and what they didn’t like.  (Whether or not they read them for pleasure, personal edification, or morbid curiosity, we don’t know, but you can judge).  We’ll be posting them successively during this upcoming week, so stop by on Monday for to see what James K. A. Smith, Nancy Guthrie and few other friends have been ruminating on this summer.

Happy Reading!