Contented Reader

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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Alan Jacobs

Oxford University Press

One the one hand, there are the distracted readers.  They loved to read, once.  But that was before the Internet.  Now they can feel their attention span destroyed by too much internet skimming, blogging, and googling.  They feel unable to sit down and pay attention long enough to read a novel; a few paragraphs, or less, and they wander away to check their rss reader or their twitter feed.

On the other hand, there are the dutiful readers.  They want to be well-read, and so they approach reading as a task to be done.  They are armed with lists of Great Books to read, and they march through those books even when they don’t get any enjoyment, or even comprehension, from it.  They may not be smart, but doggone it, their eyes have fallen upon every single word of ‘Paradise Lost.’

I can relate to both of these problems.  I am convinced that the way my brain functions has been fundamentally changed by the time I spend online.  I know the science of addiction; I know how the intermittent rewards make me want to refresh the screen again and again.  And yet, even knowing the science, I still spend way too much time online.  And if my attention flags even for a moment in a book, I urgently need to check Facebook.  I find myself leaving home in order to read.  No, I don’t have a smartphone.  If I had a smartphone, I might never do anything useful again.

But I also own a complete set of the Brittanica Great Books, and my eyes have fallen on every single page, even the math and science books that I didn’t understand a word of.  I want to be well read.  I race to finish books in order to read other books, and sometimes, my ‘read me soon’ shelf looks like homework rather than anticipated delights.

Jacobs gets it.  He really does.  And he is compassionate about it.  He isn’t a Luddite.  He gives credit to the positive ways that the Internet has changed the way we think, he loves to read blogs, and he owns a Kindle.  He knows that there are rewards to making one’s way through a difficult book, even when it takes special effort.

He is writing to both the distracted people who feel they lack the attention span for reading, and to the dutiful people who read books they think they are supposed to respect.  He is writing to readers.  He gives us all permission to reclaim the joy of reading.  To write in the margins, to tackle big books or get lost in Harry Potter as our whim drives us.  Whim is central to this book.  Be guided by your literary whims, Jacobs says, and don’t feel a shred of guilt about it.

I borrowed this book from the library, but I think I’m going to need to buy a copy.  It will, I think, reward rereading.


Written by Contented Reader

August 9, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Posted in Reviews


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