The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Turn off the TV, hide the phone and wallow in the low-tech luxury of a book, urges Valerie Sanders

August 4, 2011

Now here's a subject dear to our hearts: enjoying reading. That is, really enjoying it, via deep levels of concentration, ruined by neither the bleep of a gadget nor the killjoy pressure of a plan. "Plan once appealed to me," Alan Jacobs admits near the end of this book, "but I have grown to be a natural worshipper of Serendipity and Whim." Perhaps this is not quite what we want to hear in the long, empty, dog days of summer, when we drag ourselves away from research to update the reading lists, but he has a point.

Have we lost the ability to wallow in the sheer, primitive, childlike delight of utterly absorbing reading? The sort of reading that makes you forget to eat (like a child racing through the latest Harry Potter), or blot out the screams and splashes from the swimming pool on holiday?

Although he is a professor of English himself, Jacobs is essentially a free-range reader; he resists the veal-crate approach to reading, as did the brighter fellow students I remember from sixth form and university, who read where curiosity, not the bibliography, guided them. But organised reading has to go on, in what Jacobs rightly calls "an age of distraction", against the constant jabber of background noise, as we sit with our hands over our ears, grimly advancing where rightly hedonism should lead.

We can easily identify these distractions: the "perfect storm of anti-attention", as Jacobs calls it in one of his book's many apt and amusing phrases. The internet, primarily, and all that stems from it - emails, social-networking sites, blogs, apps, iPads, iPhones, iPods and all the bleeping, tweeting, chirping and trilling that make us put down a book to see what we might be missing in the real world (here, I broke off to delete an email from a total stranger hoping that "we may find our selves being in love together as life partner").

Not that Jacobs is at all Luddite in his impatience with electronic racket. He admits to being seduced by the Kindle, and has clearly explored all that a reader can and cannot do with it, compared with the experience of reading a real book. His primary purpose, however, is to recapture the knack of deep concentration, that sense of being "rapt" by reading that, in our multitasking and harried adulthood, has now for many of us, academics especially, become a lost art or, worse, an irrecoverable satisfaction.

In that respect, Jacobs' small, lively volume (a quick read in itself) can sound like another of the many self-help books crowding War and Peace and Moby-Dick off the shelves of our local bookstores. He certainly offers plenty of advice for the faint-hearted, flagging reader whose inability to enjoy reading is like the loss of any other appetite, whether for food or for sex. There is no particular value to fast reading, he assures us: this is mere uploading of stuff into the brain so that we can say we have read. Skimming is all right (sometimes), as is not finishing a book provided one has given it a fair chance.

Perhaps we could even (I inwardly responded) invent a variation on David Lodge's game of "Humiliation", whereby literary professionals confess to embarrassing gaps in their reading. How much would I score for abandoning Ulysses at page 600, I wonder? More positively, Jacobs is all for giving readers free rein. You should never read something because you have to, he tells us. Here, I thought of Jane Austen's Emma, who, as Mr Knightley recalls, has been drawing up reading lists since the age of 12 but never reading the books, however neatly the lists are arranged. "She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding," says her mentor, which makes her the ideal candidate for Jacobs' humane and understanding guidance.

If anything, this is an anti- self-help book, which dissociates itself from titles such as How to Read Novels like a Professor, How to Read a Book or the apocalyptic 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Jacobs himself hates being asked to recommend such lists out of context and would rather people simply followed their instincts and read what they fancied. If their instincts take them towards another extreme - obsessive rereading, fan fiction, sequels - then fair enough, but only until the law of diminishing returns makes this, too, a receding pleasure. Even an anti-self-help book, however, can begin to sound like its antithetical cousin, and Jacobs, in his insistence on not prescribing reading, is instructing us in a particular approach to recapturing the lost art.

A key factor here is silence. How do we rediscover the total fulfilment that comes from rapt reading if we can't find anywhere quiet to read? You would think libraries would be the answer, but not if they have become, as the former culture secretary Andy Burnham recommended, "social spaces", where students meet for a friendly natter and a bag of crisps in between highlighting the really important bits of Paradise Lost. Now, if you insist on having quiet, the history floor of our university library is the place to be, along with all the other spoilsports, while the carefree socialites from English chatter and munch among a litter of open books and cans of Diet Coke. As for trains - once a blissful refuge from distraction - well, we all know what's happened to trains.

Along the way, Jacobs mentions methods of coping with other kinds of readerly frustration and disappointment. He has little time for sequels, but recommends prequels - in the sense of novels preceding the novels one has read and reread to saturation. So, for example, "anyone who wants to have a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of Jane Austen would do well to read the Gothic romances and epistolary novels of the previous century", along with the philosophy of John Locke and David Hume. I suspect that, for many, this would simply send us back to a th rereading of Pride and Prejudice.

Still, no harm in that, according to Jacobs' system (or lack of it), provided we follow "Whim" rather than "Duty". He is essentially on the reader's side against the increasing army of humourless if well-intentioned gurus lining up to talk us through life's every little decision. As to whether his book will most benefit the student, the academic or the general reader, that is unclear. It reminded me of the start of Italo Calvino's 1979 novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, which opens with an implied reader settling down to read...the novel itself. "Relax", urges the narrator, "Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade."

Apparently, Machiavelli had the right idea. One of Jacobs' most enduring images is of the great Renaissance political strategist, at the end of another day's scheming, putting on his "regal and courtly garments" to read the great classical authors. Maybe this sense of ceremony is something we should reinstate as we close the doors, switch off the television, hide the mobile phone, open a book - and prepare to be engrossed.

The Author

Alan Jacobs grew up in a household of readers, where it was normal for several people to sit together saying nothing while staring at pages and groping for drinks they had placed nearby. For this reason, he says, it was "foreordained" that he would become a serious reader.

At 16, he began tackling "more serious books" on the suggestion of a friend a decade older "whom I idolised", he says. "I read them just to please him or earn credit in his eyes - and then discovered that they really were my kind of thing."

Jacobs completed a bachelor's degree in history and English literature at the University of Alabama and then a PhD in English literature at the University of Virginia. During his doctorate, he accepted a one-year appointment in the English department at Wheaton College, Massachusetts. Twenty-seven years later, he is a professor at the institution.

He is a confirmed Anglophile - "though not of the tea-and-crumpets and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese sort," he clarifies. "More the Iain Sinclair sort, or so I used to think until I took that wrong turn in Limehouse!"

A "reluctant" Arsenal fan, Jacobs writes about football on a blog called The Run of Play (runofplay.com) and he longs to see a Premier League match. Among his pastimes are walking, and playing basketball "quite badly" and the guitar "even more badly". He took up basketball at 13 when he grew from 5ft to 6ft tall in less than six months - "an otherwise extremely unpleasant experience", he recalls.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

By Alan Jacobs

Oxford University Press 224pp, £12.99

ISBN 9780199747498

Published 21 July 2011

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