Review – The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Posted August 25, 2019 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction by Alan JacobsThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs

In many ways, I enjoyed reading this 150 page essay on the value of reading, on how to read well (and by well, Jacobs chiefly means “for enjoyment”), on how to get the most out of reading. At the same time, I’m extremely conscious that Jacobs would think me a terrible reader, disapprove deeply of how I read, and despite his belief in the importance of enjoyment and pleasure in reading, is a ginormous snob and doesn’t even know it.

Take, for instance, his advocacy of taking notes while you read. If the book is really worth reading, you’ll need to digest it properly; for that, you should take notes, preferably on the book itself. (Otherwise, you’re not doing it right.) However, when he talks about fantasy and sci-fi novels, he dismisses them (in one fell swoop) as being unworthy of the note-taking approach. That’s not, he says, what they’re for. I think he needs to get his head out of his backside and try Ursula Le Guin, for a start.

He’s very anti-list, anti-planned reading; he holds forth on the importance of whim (or Whim, as he puts it), and yet at the same time denigrates fantasy since Tolkien as being a succession of pale imitators, each with less value than the last. Despite everything he says about encouraging people to read, there’s always that undercurrent of judgemental assumption about what popular literature is, and what it is worth.

He’s not wrong in many of the things he says about how to appreciate a book, how to really internalise it and get the most out of it. I’m way too fast a reader for him: he thinks 1,001 books would take a lifetime to read without leaving any room for anything else, bless his little cotton socks, and he’s a huge advocate of sloooowing doooown and ruminative reading. (Of which I’m capable at even my pace, but you wouldn’t believe it to read this.)

This sounds like damning with faint praise, but I found this book genuinely very readable and even enjoyable. In his advocacy of reading what works for you, and reading in the format that works for you (he’s a fan of ereaders), his enthusiasm is laudable. I just think there’s a beam or two he might want to pluck out of his own eye.

Rating: 3/5

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