Alan Jacobs. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 162 pp.
I distinctly remember the occasion at which I learned to read. Many warm summer evenings between the 3rd and 4th grade were spent sitting on the back porch of the farmhouse with my mother, meticulously going over the words of Poky Little Puppy. Obviously, not a very challenging book in terms of reading level or story line. It is a strange and wondrous thing what a parent can do with such meager resources when motivated by a teacher’s warning that her child is not ready for the next grade.
That a reading of Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction would take me back to that experience was alone a joy worth celebrating its appearance. However, there is so much more here that evokes memories of reading experience both pleasurable and painful. When I first cracked open this slim volume I was somewhat taken back by what it lacked. There was no table of contents and no index. I thought, “How is a reviewer to find her way around such a work?” Not even a forward or prologue that might offer some clue to the author’s thesis and pattern of argument. It didn’t take long to realize that these appendages so typical to academic narrative were missing entirely by design. Jacobs’ purpose in writing this book is to encourage reading for the sheer pleasure of the experience; something he calls “reading at whim.” Such reading for Jacobs is best experienced free from some self-imposed habit of routine examination of the mechanics or an over dependence on external guidance. Even the title of his book led me to assume something erroneous about the contents. At first I imagined this to be yet another lament about the state of reading in contemporary society with all of its raucous technological distractions. How surprised I was to learn Jacobs’ testimony that it was the Kindle that re-connected him with the distinct pleasure of reading for itself.
Even as I was slow to learn to read, I also have been a “slow” reader all of my life. This has been a source of some embarrassment and guilt. After all, I am a librarian by trade. What is a person who is slow at reading doing in a line of work so organically connected to the book? That has been a question that had haunted me for quite some time. I recall upon entering Northfield Junior High being assigned to Mrs. Fansler’s developmental reading class. Here I was every day in a sterile lab of special machines with 20 or so other “slow readers” reading boiler plate texts by following the light that was cast upon the page by the machine. If it wasn’t embarrassing enough being in the class itself, it was doubly so attempting to keep up with the light as it invariably would fail to stay with my own innate pattern of reading. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read or read without comprehension. It was that my reading style was not suited to the conventional patterns of pedagogy. In today’s schools I would probably be diagnosed with some sort of learning disorder. In some ways Mrs. Fansler was too determined to increase the speed of her young readers. You can imagine my sense of relief to read Jacobs' chagrin over society’s obsession with speed, especially speed reading.If the best reading is reading at whim then Jacobs offers some wisdom from experience. Reading at whim involves slowing down, re-reading, attention, and humility. This book was a pleasure to read. It’s admonition to read what you enjoy and enjoy what you read is like unto the thought of a cool breeze on a hot summer evening with someone you love.