The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs, 2011, Oxford University Press, New York, ISBN 9780199747498, 176 pages, $19.95, hardcover.
Let me say at the outset that this review represents a departure from the type of books we typically examine for you in Disciple. Rather than a book about Scripture, theology, ministry, missions, or leadership, this is a book about an activity that every pastor worth his salt probably engages in weekly (if not daily)-reading. This is a book about books and about how we engage with them.
As the title implies, Jacobs, a professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University (before that, an English professor at Wheaton College for over 20 years), wrote this short volume to extol the virtues and joys of losing oneself in a good book. He suggests this as an antidote to the fast-paced, multi-tasking, media-saturated atrophy of our ability to hold our attention in one place. This is emphatically not another list of "great books" or a reading plan built around the preferences and vanity of its compiler. Rather, Jacobs adds a log to the fire of literary life, urging readers to read for the peculiar pleasure that only comes from being "rapt" in a narrative.
On a number of levels, this represents Jacobs' attempt to write a counterpoint to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's classic How to Read a Book. While he does consider that work praiseworthy for refusing to take for granted that the average reader actually knows how to approach books thoughtfully, he takes issue with the "eat your veggies" approach to mastering the classics. Jacobs instead holds up the sheer joy of encountering ideas and imagination through reading as a higher guide to taste than self-improvement, cultural literacy, or any of the other reasons we are commonly taught to read great literature. If we can recapture that joy, he says, perhaps we wouldn't always feel the need to make and check off lists of things we ought to have read.
The big ideas Jacobs unpacks here are, in his own terms, "Whim" and "Serendipity". If these seem like impossible concepts to nail down, you're tracking right along with his thesis. By Whim, he means the freedom to read not just what we are told to read, but those books that strike our fancy as they come across our path. If reading is nourishment for the soul, then we should approach reading as we might approach dinner-with one eye toward nutrition and one eye toward variety and flavor, built upon our previously established tastes but always willing to try something new. Under that umbrella, he suggests that we focus the direction of our reading upstream; that is, when we find a book or author that we do enjoy, we should look back to those who influenced them for subsequent reading choices.
Reading in this way, he proposes, helps us to begin to recognize the books and authors that speak most clearly to us, but also to grow in understanding of our learning style and the weaknesses of our ideas and character we should seek to challenge. This self-taught criticism is only cultivated by close and patient reading of those books we do choose, and this encompasses Jacobs' concept of Serendipity-the openness to powerful gems of thought we were not even seeking as we read, but also the ability to recognize and properly appraise them. This idea of serendipity can even apply to reading Scripture, as we often discover the most treasured promises and exhortations only after slow and thoughtful reading and re-reading of passages.
If you, like me, are always surrounded by books that you are expected to read (whether as a part of your work, because of obligations to others, or even because of goals you set for yourself), Jacobs book may be the breath of fresh air you are looking for, giving you a better framework for organizing and making the most of the time you have to read. In the process, it just may inspire you to slow down a bit and read more deeply, turning off the computer or smartphone long enough to get fully absorbed in a text. Those we teach and serve depend on us to impart wisdom, and reading well is among the best tools God has given us to fulfill that calling.
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