Mosaic / Reviews / April 11, 2012

A return to pleasure reading

Over winter break I encountered, first-hand, an unlikely specimen of devoted readership: my 16-year-old football-playing brother sucked into “Inheritance” by Christopher Paolini.

While the intellectual and creative worth of Christopher Paolini’s books are debatable, the sight of a jock so enraptured with the huge volume of ilk, instead of the television mere feet away, was frustrating, charming and shocking.

As the “Harry Potter” era officially closes, with the “Twilight” series’ days numbered and “The Hunger Games” taking the lead, trendy reading or culturally obsessive reading turns typical non-readers into temporary bookworms. But since they aren’t willingly and passionately engaged in Shakespeare, Dickens or Joyce, is trendy reading cause for celebration? Whether academics, teachers and parents should be excited that kids are at least reading, even if they’re reading “junk” is one of the questions Alan Jacobs asks in “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.”

Aspiring writers have a vested interest in knowing if it’s true, as the saying goes, that “reading is dead”— if any money is to be made on the venture of writing and publishing. Although changes in readership and publishing come up peripherally in Jacobs’ book, his main purpose is to talk about why and how to read in the 21st century. His book is a kind of self-improvement aid: with current events, history and philosophy as support, rebuttal and discussion-starters.

Not to be confused with the books that include lists of classics that a good reader should read, like Adler’s “How to Read a Book” and Fadiman’s “The New Lifetime Reading Plan,” Jacobs makes a point of arguing against what he calls reading by The Plan. What he insists upon instead is reading by Whim. In order to conquer the inattentiveness borne of modern technology — the distractions of the internet and cell phones upon which we are dependent — Jacobs wants readers to regain deep attentiveness by operating on serendipity, genuine curiosity and passion. His book, while engaging, funny and enlightening, targets only a small, specifically minded audience: people who feel unable to immerse themselves into a book and wish to regain said ability.

And his personal advice, basically, is to get a Kindle. Merits and detractions of e-readers aside, Jacobs fails to truly delve into the reading populous of the world: predictions, inferences and catalysts of change. While our fears about what could happen to readership are the more pertinent issues worth discussing, Jacobs does succeed in offering sound advice. His musings on the practice and process of reading are valuable to modern readers who want to reform their habits and read, not for the sake of “having read,” but for the immense pleasure of becoming intensely absorbed by a single book.

Renni Johnson

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