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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review: "The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction"

TITLE: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
AUTHOR: Alan Jacobs
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011, (176 pages).

Reading is increasingly being threatened, especially with the intrusion of technology into our everyday lives. Is it still possible to read well in an age of technological distractions? Is reading a lost art? How does one read well even as one sees the increase in reading in an electronic media. These are some of the questions Alan Jacobs, an English Professor tries to address.

People are reading less. Some do not read, and even those who try hardly ever finish a book. Beginning with  reference back to a classic how-to-read-a-book manual by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren, Jacobs tries to update some of the ideas in that book by introducing some observations of technology, evolving culture, as well as new skills needed to read a book.

He begins by listing out some of the feedback he has been hearing as a Professor at Wheaton College.
  • The current cohort as belonging to the 'dumbest generation'
  • Challenge of multitasking
  • Short and erratic attention span
  • Unsustained Online reading
  • 'People don't read anymore.'
Recognizing the modern challenges of reading, Jacobs proposes a radical way to read: "Read at whim!" This is best described as the kind of reading that is out of love, pleasure and joy of reading. Taking the side of CS Lewis and Harold Bloom, he advocates:
"Read what gives you delight - at least most of the time - and do so without shame." (23)

Jacobs then dives into the cognitive aspects of brain behaviour, where reading behaviour is a way of understanding oneself and others. While reading-at-whim may not 'cover all the bases' of reading, it is at least a foundational start. Here the author distinguishes between 'whim' and 'Whim.' The former is a 'thoughtless, directionless preference' that leads one toward 'boredom or frustration or both' (41). However, the latter is a guide to discernment, something that Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book fails to educate people in. In arguing for slower, intentional, and patient reading, reading is very profitable. Jacobs writes:

"Such work strengthens our minds, makes us more capable of concentration, teaches us patience - and almost certainly a touch of humility as well, ..." (50)

Jacobs recommends interrupting one's reading with the use of questions for two reasons. Firstly, it sharpens one's attention, and secondly, it helps one to remember (57). He has a few tips for ebook readers as well, saying that the Kindle/Nook/eReaders are best for reading sequential fiction and novels. Slow reading aids comprehension and attentiveness. That, however is not the chief goal. The aim is to let slow and concentrated reading lead the reader toward a stage of being 'lost' in the book. It is like entering into the land of Alice in Wonderland, not just reading the story but LIVING in the story.

Jacobs is critical of Adler's and van Doren's threefold advice of reading, about people distinguishing their kinds of reading into "reading for information, reading for understanding, reading for entertainment" (98). Regardless of categorization, the aim of the reader is to be 'rapt,' the stage where any distinctions become irrelevant. He is also supportive of both 'hyper attention' and 'deep attention,' that BOTH can be cultivated, plainly because the human brain is intelligent enough to do both, to pay attention to one, as well as many. He acknowledges that 'deep attention' is the domain of a minority. In the modern culture of Wikipedia, technology, and rapid skimming of online materials, Jacobs believes that 'skimming and concentration can and should coexist' (112). Thus, scanning and skimming help to navigate the mass of information. Discernment helps decide which to focus. In other words, the author feels that it is more important to know when to skim, and when to focus. Discernment again.

Jacobs also makes a distinction between 'hoarding data' and 'strip-mining relevant data' in a Google age, vs real constructive reading. For instance, good reading is not a matter of uploading content speedily. These are possible only for some genres like cookbooks. For such cases, rapid reading leads to rapid boredom.  He acknowledges some of the challenges of multitasking:

  • "no one actually multitasks; instead, we shift among different tasks and give attention to only one at any given time;
  • the attempt to multitask results in a state of 'continuous partial attention.
  • those who believe they are skilled multitaskers tend to be worse at it than others." (83)

He suggests:

"Shut down the computer; put aside the cellphone. If the temptation to check email or texts or Twitter is too strong, then take yourself somewhere where the gadgets aren't. Lock them in the car before you enter the coffee shop with your book; give them to your spouse or partner and request that they be hidden, and then go into a room with a comfortable chair and close the door behind you. It's not hard to come up with handy-dandy practical suggestions; what's hard is following them - or rather, even wanting to follow them." (84)

Still, there is deep virtue to undistracted reading. Jacobs suggests silence based of one's self-awareness. Go to a quiet room. Turn off the WiFi. Read aloud. A reading silence.

My Comments

This book is a pleasure to read. It contains so much information that one can learn something from any page. The book itself is written like a novel, that one can go from cover to cover. There is a stark absence of a Table of Contents. One can literally read this book at whim. This book while is about reading in an age of distraction is multidisciplinary as well. It touches on cognitive learning, on technology, psychology, social sciences, literature, spirituality, inspiration, and many others. It encourages one to read hyperactively as well as concentrate, in solitude as well as in good company, in silence as well as reading aloud. Ultimately, it aims to take the stress and tensions of conquering the book, and substitute it with the joy and delight of simply enjoying the book.

Jacobs does not overestimate the virtues of concentrated reading. Neither does he undermine the benefits of scattered reading. He does a good job in keeping all of these reading tendencies as nice reading bedfellows. This book is a useful corrective to those of us overly critical of the technological distractions around us. Perhaps, we can be encouraged to read another book soon, regardless of medium. It is a lot of fun to read Jacobs's confession of his reading struggles amid the many distractions. He demonstrates once again, that once we can overcome the fear of reading, it is not only good for reading per se, reading at whim can help us read well.

Perhaps, another title for this book is: "The Joy of Reading in the 21st Century."

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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