Outside of school, when I was a kid I pretty much read whatever I wanted to. I went from book to book to book choosing whatever struck my fancy and sounded like a good story. I had no one guiding my reading, my choices were my own. And I found some really good books. But as I grew older and learned that there are books considered better and more important than others and I thought about what I had read, I wished, for a time, that I had had someone quietly guiding my reading. I wished that for a long time actually and now and then when I read a memoir of a learned and bookish person who had a parent or aunt or grandfather steering them along their reading pathways, I still catch myself wishing I had had such a childhood.

But after reading Alan Jacobs’ delightful book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I am, once and for all, glad I was left on my own. I was already too eager to please teachers and I am sure if I had someone telling me what to read for fun I would not have had as much pleasure as I did in discovering for myself what I liked and what I didn’t like, meandering through the public library and around the bookstore, kid’s books and adult books, not knowing what genre was, only knowing that I wanted a good story that was going to transport me somewhere else.

I read at whim. Reading at whim is Jacobs’ “one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle.” Jacobs is a college professor and there is a difference between reading because you are a scholar or studying to be one, and reading for the sheer pleasure of it, which is most of us. Jacobs exhorts us common readers:

for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout – some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. this kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C.S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”

This is not to say that readers can’t have aspirations. Readers will want to, and should, challenge themselves. But there is a difference between picking up Middlemarch because you genuinely are interested in reading it and picking it up because it is on a list of 1001 novels you should read and you want to check it off your list.

Jacobs also suggests that while we are about reading at whim, we might also want to slow down a bit, pay more attention, read more carefully. But only certain books. A book like Middlemarch we would definitely want to read slowly, but slow and careful reading doesn’t make sense for the latest John Grisham novel. So read at whim and adjust your reading speed as appropriate to the book. Commonsense.

The Pleasures of Reading is filled with commonsense. And while it is a slim book, I read it slowly and with much pleasure as though Jacobs and I were sitting over coffee and talking. And even though it is a slim book, he packs a lot in. I might have to make another post or two about certain aspects of the book as I start pulling out all my page points and rediscover why I marked something on two of every four pages.

If you have been eyeing this book, I’d highly recommend it. The key word in the title is “Pleasure.” Jacobs is all about the pleasure of reading in case you haven’t clued in on that already. I agree with him that reading should be enjoyable. With so many other things in our lives that are obligations, we shouldn’t make reading into one too. So read at whim! And have fun!

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