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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
Alan Jacobs
Oxford University Press, 2011
176 pp., $19.95

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On Rereading
On Rereading
Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press, 2011
304 pp., $26.95

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Lauren F. Winner


Deep Attention

On reading.

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The protagonist of Reading Up is none other than Hamilton Wright Mabie, who served as the reading columnist for The Ladies' Home Journal from 1902 to 1912. Men and women who might not seek out reading manuals like Porter's nonetheless encountered the same trope incidentally in Mabie's columns in The Ladies' Home Journal, and Blair finds in these columns a key to how a large swatch of middle-class Americans were taught to think about reading. Mabie believed that in telling people what to read, in helping ensure that striving men and women read the right books and not the wrong books, he was exercising a moral duty: because books shape us so profoundly, those who know what to read and what to avoid must instruct those who, left to their own devices, might waste time and, worse, malform themselves reading the wrong sort of books.

Yet the very task of persuading readers to embrace "reading up" required of Mabie a "delicate balancing act," where he at once celebrated readers' desire to read recreationally (that is, to read the sentimental fiction and romances they enjoyed), while also steering them toward the élite books to whose cultural capital they were attracted (classics and selections from contemporary realist fiction). Mabie was writing for readers who were interested in pursuing "self-culture," and he assured them that "self-culture is possible through books." He sometimes endorsed "diverting" books "of no enduring value" because he believed that people needed entertainment as much as they needed education (and because he was writing for a magazine that straddled the educational and the diverting). Readers ought to feel free to read the occasional fluffy fiction, but because "strength, training and growth come largely from reading books … [that are] hard and often repellant," people should not be content with reading purely for diversion. Thus, Mabie tried to get Ladies' Home Journal subscribers to read Anna Karenina and The Scarlet Letter, instead of sticking entirely with comfortable romance. Mabie, Blair argues, was successful in enlarging readers' embryonic sense that reading certain kinds of literature would help them improve and get ahead. "Reading up, as an orientation towards literature and the study of difficult texts," Blair writes, "has become almost second nature to us today. We know that certain texts are 'better,' and are 'better for us.'" This is the very position Jacobs decries.

Jacobs has reshaped not only how I think about reading but how and what I actually read. For me, the most riveting section of his book was his discussion of a problem that has plagued me for years. You love an author. The author is dead, or has at any rate completed the series she wrote that you love. (In my case: Flannery O'Connor falls into the first category, Dorothy Sayers into both.) What do you, the besotted reader, do? Well, you can keep rereading the author's published oeuvre—but there is, Jacobs acknowledges, a certain diminishing return to doing so. At the very least, you have to let longer and longer periods elapse between rereadings. You can turn to spinoffs—the Jane Austen fan has no shortage of novels that purport to reveal what happened after Darcy and Elizabeth married, novels that take us into the lives of 20th-century book clubs reading Austen, novels that place the story line of Austen novels in today's London. But how gratifying are these spinoffs, really? The Diary of Bridget Jones may have its satisfactions, but they are not the satisfactions of reading an actual Jane Austen novel for the first time.

Jacobs offers a solution to this problem that is both simple and exciting: when you've finished reading, and rereading, everything that Jane Austen wrote, read what she read. "[R]ead the Gothic romances and epistolary novels of the previous century, along with … the philosophy of John Locke and David Hume. One of Hume's philosophical emphases is the power of what he calls 'impressions.' And once you know what Hume means by that word it becomes really interesting to note that the original title of Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions."

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