The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Image of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
Release Date: 
May 26, 2011
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Alan Jacobs’ bright, broad paean to reading is a sort of secular prayer book. It instructs, exhorts, laments, reveres; it has great faith and—best of all—shows the Way.”

A recent NEA report found literary reading in the U.S. on the increase for the first time in a quarter century. This purported reversal will be hard for some to believe—there were suspiciously few tweets about it. But if growing hordes are now forsaking sips of new media madness to imbibe instead the hard stuff of Literature, then The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction will be an inspiration to them.

Alan Jacobs’ bright, broad paean to reading is a sort of secular prayer book. It instructs, exhorts, laments, reveres; it has great faith and—best of all—shows the Way. Or a way at least—for author Jacobs, a college English professor, warns well that the road to reading Nirvana is a highly personal one.

No programmatic Great Books prescriptions here (though they are recommended!), no bucket list of benchmark tomes to check off before checking out. Mr. Jacobs is against one-size-fits-all lit lists, especially of the 1001 Books You Must Read variety. After all, one man’s Bronte is another’s Coetzee.

Instead, Mr. Jacobs suggests that our personal reading diets be organically grown, in season with our selves and suitable for our particular mental soil. “Read at Whim,” he extols, borrowing the phrase from Randall Jarrell and imbuing it with the seriousness of the uppercase W.

Reading at Whim, however, isn’t quite as insouciant as it sounds. It’s a challenge to read well, especially in 2011 with our favorite ringtones forever importuning. But we can do it. The Pleasures is a How To with a convincing measure of Why To and just a reluctant little dash of What To (read) tossed in. It should do all those new readers the NEA has discovered a world of good.

Then there are the lapsed readers, those who want to come back to books but find they can’t in our age of distraction. These apostate long for the peace of mind, the high solitude, the ineffable elation that deep reading once awarded them. But when they look up glassy-eyed from their touch screens they feel that their brains have been irrevocably altered by the digital deluge. They can’t concentrate. They can’t focus. A vital, important part of their innermost, private selves has been stolen.

No worries: our ebullient author has been there. He too was once attention-addled, scatter-brained, and itchy for email. He too shorted T. S. Eliot for RSS feeds. You’ll never guess what saved him. A Kindle! Somehow being shown only a page at a time, unable to jump easily forward or back, helped Mr. Jacobs achieve a level of in-the-moment concentration, of being “rapt,” that had abandoned him—while having his thumb poised above the Next button strangely quieted his digital-age twitchiness. Thus roped to the mast of his Kindle, Mr. Jacobs can sail past today’s shallow siren song of immediacy.

So our guide is no Luddite. (He does mention locking your cell phone in the car before you hit the coffee shop with your book, but admits such ideas are easier to suggest than to follow.) He blogs, he reads the feeds, he has an iPhone. At one point, enchanted by a centuries-old four line poem, he remarks that it contains “Just a hundred and thirty characters. You could tweet it,” he writes. “And should.”

Yet despite his interest in technological advances, Jacobs remains foremost an astute and grateful reader who recognizes the contemporary cacophony as a serious threat to the noble pursuit of that greatest of pleasures: reading a book well, becoming absorbed in it, “crossing over” to it, in the novelist Elizabeth Bowen’s locution.

“To read in this utterly absorbed way I have been describing is to collaborate with a book on the conquest of time,” he writes. It gives you “ownership of your inner space,” which may sound like a tall order—conquering time and all—unless you’ve ever lost yourself for hours in a book. Then you’ll know exactly what he means.

Turning these pages is like going to a particularly eclectic, ink-stained party. You never know who you’ll meet. Dwight McDonald, Charles Dickens, J. K. Rowling, Charles Simic, Abbot Hugh, Penelope Fitzgerald, John O’Hara (at his prickliest!), Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Trollope, Gibbon, Walpole and Dr. Johnson are all here, for a start. We are treated to an unexpectedly moving image of a humble, bespoke Machiavelli (Machiavelli!) alone in his library that is hard to forget. We are introduced to a mainly out-of-print fabulist named R. A. Lafferty, whom Mr. Jacobs describes as “one of the great weirdos of American literature.” It’s an all-star cast for wit and wisdom.

Indeed we are at times so awash in interesting quotation and information that yet another delectable footnote breaks the reading momentum. It’s as if there is a diverting Inbox or Twitter feed at the bottom of many of the pages, ironically—for this book—filled with engaging distractions.

Along with the newcomers and the lapsed, Mr. Jacobs early on identifies another segment of his potential audience: readers who “often lack confidence,” who “wonder whether they are reading well, with focus and attentiveness, with discretion and discernment.” Readers in this predicament are doubtless out there—and this book will do much to assuage their troubles.

Yet anyone familiar with the reviews at, and elsewhere on the Web might agree that more readers fit into a different—even opposite—category, best described the way comedian Will Ferrell describes the characters he’s famous for playing in his movies: people with “unearned confidence.”

Alas, for this majority, owners of immodest conviction, Mr. Jacobs’ elegant and passionate treatise will be of little help. He seems to know this. “I have addressed this book mainly to the despairing,” he writes in the minor key of a yet another footnote, “to those who believe or fear that serious reading is beyond their reach . . .” He delivers in these pages a healthy antidote for that earnest despair.

“Attentiveness is worth cultivating,” Mr. Jacobs insists. It may be the largest lesson of his wise book. For attentiveness is armor against impulse and an anarchic mind. When at the close he cheers on his fellow serious readers, “May our tribe increase!” he does nothing less than to suggest a better world.