It seems a rare accomplishment that a book on the pleasures of reading could actually pull off being pleasurable itself. But Alan Jacobs’ newest book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, does just that. It is a marvelous manifesto of sanity in an age of jeremiads about the modern predicament of attention loss on one hand, and those proud champions of distraction singing the hallelujah chorus of a world devoid of long-form books on the other. “Read at Whim” is Jacob’s advice and motto for a new generation of readers. Read, Jacobs proclaims, for the sheer pleasure of reading; simply for the hell of it. And by all means, don’t get bogged down by the authoritarians who smugly look down their noses at those who aren’t reading the “right” books on the “list.”
Jacobs enlists the wisdom of the great readers for pleasure, from the frolicking G.K. Chesterton to the jocular David Foster Wallace, in his defense of not reading to impress others, but for the sheer joy of losing oneself in another world within the world and thereby becoming more and more a whole self. Jacobs rallies against the “lists” of books proffered by many an intellectual whose methods seem to inhibit the pleasures of reading instead of evoking desire for new worlds and new eyes.
There are those who “read to read” and those who “read to have read.” It is Jacobs’ desire to give hope to those who have been burnt out by the latter, and to encourage the lost souls’ journey into the former. Reading, for Jacobs, is about love and being changed. What Flannery O’Conner says about grace can also be said about reading: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Jacobs is trying to teach us the grace of reading, and though reading can often seem painful (in myriad ways), the wayfaring through pages is a life-long experiment in love.
A central theme of the book, then, travels the paths of an Augustinian ordo amoris: a reordering of loves and desires. It is not that lists are in any sense intrinsically bad or harmful—and the books on the lists are no doubt classics that deserve to be read—but it is the psychology, or frame of mind, of the “read to have read” that tends toward the dulling of reading. Jacobs is really criticizing book snobbery, and the worst thing about this snobbery is the paradoxical sense of not being satisfied with what one is so snobbish about. People can tell when someone truly loves a book—or any form of art— as opposed to the one who simply wants to check another classic off the list.
In his famous essay, Authority and American Usage, David Foster Wallace uses as his epigraph a succinct yet profound quote by St. Augustine: Dilige et quod vis fac. Love, and do as you will. Wallace’s and Jacobs’ essays may deal with different content, but the same thread of loves and pleasures—and the freedom they enable—permeates each text. And it is this love that must take precedence in all debates of authority. I know this may sound a little too didactically precious, but lets face it: real love is the strongest antidote to sentimentalism. And book snobbery is an intellectual species of sentimentalism.
Authority persuades most rigorously through love, and this is why the authority of Wallace and Jacobs is so powerful. Neither is eschewing that there really are books that are better than others, or ways of writing that really are superior. Books and language are like lovers longing to woo and be wooed, rather than, say, the trophy wife (or husband) that is only beneficial for bootlicking cocktail parties. Jacobs is trying to admonish those who, unwittingly or not, transpose the “friends with benefits” culture into one of “books with benefits.” And unfortunately this has been the tendency of many so-called avant-garde art scenes of late; a sort of anti-authoritarian authoritarianism that uses piddling influence—instead of truth, goodness, and beauty—to persuade.
At one particular point in the book, Jacobs recalls the impact of a high school teacher’s anecdote of rereading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time every summer. This initially perplexed Jacobs. How could someone not get sick of reading the same book over and over throughout a lifetime? And doesn’t this go against the conquering “booklist” mentality? He thought this ritual was something people only did with sacred texts such as the Bible. It wasn’t until he matured as a reader that he began to understand the manifold pleasures that one piece of great art could give over and over again.
And this is truly the crux of Jacobs’ project: that the pleasure good art gives, need not be jealously preserved at such an elitist price; that one need not satisfy the status quo. He seeks not to pick fights with the list makers and taskmasters of reading, but simply to renew tired eyes and minds. To remind us, as Proust once said, that: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”
Trevor Logan is a Postgraduate student in Theology at the University of Nottingham, England.
Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction