The Magazine

The Reading Life

Pleasure, not duty, should bring us to books.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By MICAH MATTIX
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Marx had another term for this. It’s called “false consciousness.” It was much to my relief when, in the midst of Garber’s prescriptions, I received Alan Jacobs’s wonderful Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. We live not only in an age of distraction but one of liberal, Puritanical moralists, and Jacobs provides a wonderful respite from both. If Marjorie Garber is preoccupied with policing the use and abuse of literature, Alan Jacobs is more concerned with helping readers, or former readers, rediscover the joy of reading. And the first and most important step, for Jacobs, is to stop worrying about what you should read and simply read what strikes you. Start reading, he says, at whim:

Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day.

The problem with reading only Great Books under a sense of intellectual duty, and usually with the hope of improving ourselves, Jacobs writes, is that we close ourselves off to what these books have to offer. We treat these books not as valuable in and of themselves but as an exercise to be done to improve ourselves. But reading alone does not improve anyone: While some readers are good people, others are not. Reading at whim, for Jacobs, means reading a book “for itself” alone. It is only when you read in this way that you are truly reading.

This does not mean that reading is never difficult, or that all books are equally valuable. Nor does it mean that books make no moral demands on our lives. Moreover, reading at whim is not always sufficient: “Some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble. In those times when Whim isn’t quite enough, times that will come to us all, we discover this.” Because we have learned through practice that pushing through difficult texts brings “new and greater delights,” we continue to read long after whim has left us. For Jacobs, this is not reading out of duty but experience.

No doubt, experience helps us to make this choice, but I wonder if Jacobs overestimates our power not only to calculate those “new and greater delights” but to choose those deeper pleasures over more immediate superficial ones. Reading out of duty can free me from this calculation and push me to choose the deeper pleasures in spite of myself. Yet, overall, Jacobs is mostly right: Reading at whim is the best way to recapture the joy of reading.

And what of this “age of distraction” in Jacobs’s title? He thinks that it is exaggerated. Humans have always had distractions. Readers during Francis Bacon’s time were distracted by the overwhelming number of books! And if our age offers more opportunities for some distractions, it also eliminates others. Consider the temptation to flip to the back of a book to read the ending, or return to the table of contents. This, he notes, is difficult with a Kindle, requiring several steps:

The technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else. E-readers, unlike many other artifacts of the digital age, promote linearity—they create a forward momentum that you can reverse if you wish, but not without some effort.

Should we read for use or pleasure? Dr. Johnson once said that “if a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.” Read at whim, that is, and discover the true utility of books.

Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.