New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
I enjoyed every minute of reading this book, though I certainly don’t need to be persuaded about the pleasures of reading. I see it in my children, I feel it daily, and I am so increasingly addicted to the joy of reading that finding the next great read, for both myself and my kids, has become one of the engines that drives my days. I would hazard a guess that most of you also feel a sense of superfluity when you read the title of the book. We don’t need to be told about the pleasures of reading; we are readers; we already take pleasure in reading. But what writing this blog about books about books has done for me is to enrich my love of reading, and my commitment to making more and more time for it, with stories of others’ love. Time and time again I have found my own pleasures and thoughts so beautifully articulated by a complete stranger, and there is wonder in that.
I was almost giddy with delight as I read Alan Jacobs’s story of his love of reading. A professor of English at Wheaton College, and the author of a biography of C.S. Lewis and a book called Theology of Reading, about how to read lovingly and charitably, Jacobs is also a technophile. RSS feeds, email and twitter began to swamp his days, and he’d find himself unable to read because of the constant urge to check his i-phone. He realized one day that he was reading less than he did when he was 10. And with less pleasure. What I found most moving about this book is that Jacobs says that when he bought a Kindle (in order to avoid lugging a heavy pile of books on a trip) the Kindle saved his reading life, or, rather, it gave him back his deeply attentive reading life which had been frayed by the distractions of his technological tethers. This is quite a confession coming from a professor of English. He also recommends lying about the Great Books you have (not) read, and he thinks that there are too many undergraduate students of English. So there are quite a few surprises in this English professor’s book about the pleasures of reading.
This is not one of those doom and gloom books about the demise of reading. On the contrary, he begins by quoting research from the American National Endowment for the Arts that shows that “For the first time in over a quarter-century, … literary reading has risen among adult Americans.” And yet, we continue to wring our hands. Jacobs quotes frequently from Nicholas Carr, whose The Shallows was a worrying about the effect of the internet on our ability to read well, but Jacobs points out that the so-called dumbing down of America could be a self-fulfilling prophesy:
I find myself particularly intrigued by younger people who have heard their cohort called “The Dumbest Generation,” who are continually told that their addiction to multiple simultaneous stimuli renders them incapable of the seriously focused and single-minded attention that the reading of big thick books requires. Some of them are defiant in response to such charges, but most at least half-believe them. Told over and over again that they can’t read, they begin to wonder why they should even try. (6)
That is a sobering thought. It’s such a common sensical observation, but it has stuck with me. Of course there will be some kind of diminishing if you call a generation dumb. We don’t call our individual children dumb, so why would we label their generation so negatively? It has allowed me a moment of self-congratulation that I have not wrung my hands in sight of my boys and have, I hope, inculcated not just a love of reading, but a belief that they can tackle big books and enjoy them.
Jacobs’s main thesis is that reading is not hygiene; it should not be done out of duty or by rote. Rather, he advocates that you follow Whim, and “Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame” (23).
He has a particular beef with books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which he calls “the perfect guide for those who don’t want to read but who want to have read” (68). I disagree entirely with his disdain for the book (I adore the children’s literature version), but the concept of wanting to have read instead of simply wanting to read, I found very persuasive. “Yes!”, I scribbled in the margins (annotations being another of his pieces of advice for amplifying your pleasure of a book). Yes! There have been many times that I have picked up a book in order to be able to say that I have read it, not simply to enjoy the reading of it. I also have great difficulty in abandoning a book that I am not enjoying. Reading off of someone else’s list of greatest hits, he says, is a waste of good reading time. Lie, he says:
Yes, lying is wrong. But sometimes in this world we have to choose among evils. It is wrong to lie, but it may be still more wrong to read a bunch of books you don’t want to read—and by “read” them I mean cast your eyes across most of the lines on most of the pages—in order to impress people whose opinion you shouldn’t be deferring to anyhow. So it would be less bad, I think, to take a little time to figure out what people will be impressed to hear that you’re reading, use Wikipedia to find out just enough about those books to enable you to bluff plausibly when questioned—and then go back home and read whatever you want to read. (68)
I love his faith! This is not a professor speaking to students (who should never, ever rely on Wikipedia!), it is a book lover speaking to other members of his tribe who may have lost the plot. I love his faith that we can abandon obligation and simply follow Whim, that the joy of reading will give us not just guilty pleasure but abiding pleasures as well (17).
Where I begin to disagree with Jacobs is in his belief that
The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. (“I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes. “Can I go back to my books now?”) Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made. They take care of themselves; they always do go back to their books. (107)
I am an extreme reader, but I was not born one. I am mostly made, not born, and I owe that making to my degrees in English as well as to the learning I get from other readers, on-line and in print. As gently as he can, Jacobs is saying that undergraduate departments cannot expect to continue to expand as they have in the 60 years since the GI Bill greatly increased university enrollment:
At the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps 2 percent of Americans attended a university; now the number is closer to 70 percent (though only 30 percent get bachelor’s degrees). … [It] has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of “the reading class” beyond what may be its natural limits. (107)
I get very uncomfortable with a notion that there are natural limits on the size of the reading class (a term, to be fair, that Jacobs dislikes himself, thus his use of quotation marks). I owe much of my abiding pleasure of reading to the universities I attended. I am not an autodidact who would have found that love without an institutional gateway.
Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about—I scruple not to say it—skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours. (114)
Though I do read very differently when I’m teaching a book and reading it for pleasure, I can’t make the same kind of distinction. Learning and depths of pleasure are inseparable for me. I needed one to reach the other, and I find them complementary. And, yes, I know that this puts me in another class of rare bird, but it’s a class I would have been left out of if the access to undergraduate education was not so readily available.
My copy of this book is a review copy, but I will be buying multiple copies to give as gifts to thoughtful book-lovers. It really was a pleasure to read.