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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., 21.99

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On Rereading
On Rereading
Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press, 2011
304 pp., 27.53

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Lauren F. Winner

Deep Attention

On reading.

In his 1896 guide to reading, Books & Culture, Hamilton Wright Mabie observed that "To love a book is to invite an intimacy with it which opens the way to its heart …. One who loves books, like one who loves a particular bit of a country, is always eager to make others see what he sees." Alan Jacobs is one such lover of books, and in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, he helps us see what he sees—or, more precisely, he helps us see how he sees books.

Reading Jacobs is a supreme pleasure, not least because of his here-rococo-there-avuncular voice (shades of C. S. Lewis, about whom he's written at some length). Also, Jacobs has that rare and enviable skill of choosing just the right gems from his own reading and offering them to his readers. (To wit, this fabulous line from an interview with Zadie Smith: "I always feel a disappointment coming out of English departments, as if all these brilliant people are gathered and poised to study something and all they have to study is … these things? Novels? But they're so … smoooshy …. It depresses me, how embarrassed people seem to be about novels, how much they want them to be something else.")

And, as readers of this periodical well know, reading Jacobs is pleasurable in part because his opinions and affections defy prediction and typicality. Jacobs is an English professor, so you might expect him to turn up his nose at bestselling mass fiction—but in Pleasures, he zealously defends the Harry Potter series. Jacobs has a decidedly curmudgeonly streak, so you might expect him to shun e-readers—but in Pleasures, he reveals that a Kindle actually saved his reading life. As Jacobs explains it, his reading was being poisoned by distraction. Increasingly, whenever he settled in with a good novel, his hand reached for his iPhone; he would play with said iPhone while reading, thus he paid less attention to the novel in question, thus he enjoyed reading that novel less. Unexpectedly, it was more technology that delivered him from this state. One day, Jacobs was standing at his local Borders (may it rest in peace) carrying a great stack of books, including Diarmaid MacCulloch's 800-page The Reformation, and Neal Stephenson's 960-page Anathem. Where was he going to put them all, Jacobs wondered. "Forget this, I said to myself. I'm getting a Kindle. And I did." The Kindle "kept me reading." Using an e-reader, Jacobs found that his attention stayed fixed on Anathem. His hand had something to click, so he needn't reach for his iPhone. Furthermore, unlike many other technological devices, e-readers (at least in their present incarnation) "promote linearity." It takes so much effort to reverse the forward motion of the Kindle that the person reading doesn't—and then he finds himself wholly absorbed in whatever novel or political exposé or sonnet cycle is right there in front of him. All this led Jacobs to conclude, contra readerly Luddites (like me), that "it's not reasonable to think of 'technology' … as the enemy of reading."

The true enemy of reading is a sibilant voice that begins telling us, around about middle school, that reading is something we do not because we enjoy it, but because it will make us somehow better. The voice tells us that reading is something we should do—we should read a book the way we take a vitamin. Jacobs' The Pleasures of Reading is, above all, a brief for enjoyment. Jacobs reminds us that most of us learned to read by being read to as children—we learned to read in the lap of a loving parent, grandparent, or aunt. Reading thus "starts for many of us in a warm cocoon of security, accompanied by an unassailable sense of being loved." But it is "gradually and inexorably" turned into "a site of stress." We have to read what we are told (explicitly or implicitly) to read, and we begin to think that reading is about self-improvement, not pleasure, let alone love. Among the culprits Jacobs blames for this are books like Mortimer Adler's 1940 How to Read a Book. Such instructive manuals have taught a large portion of the American reading public to be suspicious of books that aren't in some way "certifiably good for you." Jacobs wants you to read the books that delight you.

The conflict between these two rival conceptions of reading has a very long history, one episode in which is the subject of Reading Up, an interesting first monograph by Marquette University English professor Amy L. Blair. Blair teases out the logic that, she argues, came to dominate American reading in the early 20th century: readers strove to "read up," that is to improve themselves and elevate their status by reading those books that "experts have deemed 'the best.'" The late 19th and early 20th century saw the publication of books that anticipated Adler—for example, Noah Porter's 1881 Books and Reading: Or, What Books Shall I Read and How Shall I Read Them? and Robert Sturgiss Ingersoll's 1916 Open That Door! Porter, Ingersoll and other literary guides borrowed tropes from more generic American success manuals and applied them to the bookstall: Reading was a means of self-improvement, and strivers wanted to learn to read better—to read the right books, the books that would help them get a leg up in this world.

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."

I think that suggestion may be the most thrilling thing I have ever read. It not only intervened to arrest my endless—and yes, to some extent, diminishingly enjoyable—rereadings of favorite authors. It has opened before me a huge and fascinating topography to explore. Upon reading Jacobs, I immediately ordered (from Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas, a bookstore you should check out in person or online, if you haven't) a published bibliography of O'Connor's library, as well as her collected book reviews, and those two books have guided my reading for the last few months, taking me more deeply into O'Connor than a sixth reading of The Habit of Being could have done, and introducing me to works that in their own right are interesting—I am currently reading Caroline Gordon's The Malefactors, which O'Connor said was the best treatment of conversion in American fiction.

Another recent approach to rereading is Patricia Meyer Spacks' On Rereading. Spacks, a retired English professor known for her pathbreaking 1975 The Female Imagination as well as for her fascinating studies Privacy and Boredom and her recent annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice, set out, for a year, to reread. Her experiment in rereading, she explains, is essentially "a defense of reading [that] … attempts to demonstrate how reading gets inside your head and what it does when it gets there." Spacks suggests that on first readings we are sometimes overwhelmed by our feelings about a book. Rereading opens up space for the reader to analyze and think about the book, which in turn will increase the reader's pleasure. And so Spacks returned to Alice in Wonderland, Emma, Middlemarch, Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim (its fantasies of rebellion, so apt in 1954, now "no longer seem viable, even at the level of fantasy," concludes Spacks, so the "book … no longer gratifies me").

Like Jacobs and Blair, Spacks tackles head on the notion that there are certain books that one "should" read (and, indeed, should like). Spacks picked up three books that friends and colleagues admired that she had found, on first reading, "unpleasant …. Could I will myself into enjoyment?" First, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. When Spacks initially read Ford's novel, she was about sixteen. Finding the narrator annoying, she got nowhere with the book that so many writers and critics laud as "perfect." Upon rereading, she could appreciate the novel, especially its exploration of precisely how hard it is to tell a story—but she again found the narrator unnecessarily alienating and cold. "If I admire The Good Soldier, I still don't like it …. [J]udgment need not affect taste." Spacks also reread The Pickwick Papers. She was pleased to discover that she now found agreeable a book that had once bored her. Her younger self, she suspects, was either too impatient or too ideologically committed to a certain form of plot to enjoy "loose narrative." Still, though she was happy enough to reread Pickwick, it didn't reveal itself to be a book she loved. If her rereadings of Ford and Dickens weren't life-changing, revisiting Saul Bellow's Herzog was. In taking up Bellow's account of a middle-aged ex-academic, Spacks felt the sense "of discovery that I sometimes mistakenly associate with first readings …. I found the novel both tedious and irritating the first time I read it, back in the 1960s …. Now I can't fathom what was wrong with me when I felt thus."

The final paragraph of Jacobs' acknowledgments thanks the participants of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia, in whose company Jacobs fleshed out part of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. "Perhaps only they will understand the sense in which this book is an exercise in lived theology," Jacobs writes. This sentence is not merely an acknowledgment-page throwaway; it prompts the reader to think theologically about a book whose pages contain little that is overtly religious. And, upon reflection, it becomes clear that The Pleasures of Reading is indeed an exercise in lived theology.

First, Jacobs is writing about love. This is a book about loving books, written by a man who wants other people to love them, too. And love, even when practiced toward the neighbor who is a book (not to mention the neighbor to whom we recommend books), is of course a theological act. As Jacobs has explained in another book, reading can be a loving encounter; one can learn to read "lovingly, because of and in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the author and guarantor of love."

Second, Jacobs is writing about attention: "To pick up a book … is to choose a particular form of attention." Jacobs wants people to recover the ability to practice "deep attention" inside a book—not to read hastily because one is reading what one has to for school, or because one is note-taking for information; not to read distractedly, with half one's thoughts elsewhere; but to read with sustained focus, to allow one's self to become absorbed by a book. And the deep attention one cultivates in reading allows one to practice deep attention in other settings, too—at the dinner table, while walking through a city or a forest, when at prayer. This does not mean that reading is instrumental, but simply that it is related to and part and parcel of the cultivation of a faithful way of being in the world.

Finally, Jacobs is writing about joy. He wants us to find in reading not anxious "reading up" but pleasure, whimsy. He wants the practice of reading to be a practice of joy. "God's presence does not make itself felt in a state of sadness or indifference or lightheartedness or distractedness," says the Talmud, but rather in joy. The Talmud is speaking of the joy that comes when you fulfill a biblical commandment. I suspect Jacobs would say there is a not-coincidental resonance between that joy and the joy that one finds when one is lost in a book.

Lauren Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. She is the author most recently of Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (HarperOne).

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