On Reading for Pleasure: “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction”

Why do we read?

Is reading a means to an end, or can it simply be an end simply in itself? Alan Jacobs’ recent book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011), takes up the question of what specifically reading for pleasure could (or should) mean to us.

The Wall Street Journal notes where The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction stands in relation to other books-about-reading in its review (WSJ: “The Whimsical Reader”) —

“while analyzing this common problem among today’s laptop-owning, cellphone-toting, iPad-stroking classes, Mr. Jacobs, a critic and professor of English, also wants to take on the notion that reading is drudgery — the broccoli of the intellectual diet. He is particularly worried about the attitudes fostered by reading guides such as Harold Bloom’s “How to Read and Why” (2000) and its formidable forebear, Mortimer Adler’s popular “How to Read a Book,” which first appeared in 1940. These guides provide lists of recommended books, and Adler explained that we read for three purposes — information, understanding and entertainment — and then noted unsettlingly, “this book will not be very much concerned with¬entertainment.”

Why indeed, would we want to read unless we find it enjoyable and pleasurable to us as readers? And if it isn’t — hence the whole point of Jacobs’ book — how can we discover or rediscover that pleasure from reading? One of the main premises of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is focused less on what we read, but how we read what we read. I’m quite fond of book lists myself, but the act of choosing what we read can’t simply be something we leave to cultural authorities and makers of lists — that responsibility is a sort of cultivation that every reader, in some way or another, does for himself or herself.

On the second half of this book title — reading in an age of distractions — there’s reason to believe that it’s the distractions which could be the more difficult half of the equation. We can read for pleasure, but since we have become so accustomed to so many of our distractions, how willing are we to give up this distractible habits? —

“Mr. Jacobs offers other pieces of advice for seekers of contemplation — search out silence, for instance — in our loud, bright, flashing digital world, but he emphasizes that the only solution is both obvious and impossible: Turn off our computers and silence our phones. But “how many of us have a real chance of defeating those distractions?” he asks. “And how many of us really want to?” Moreover, if technology has indeed altered our brains, as Mr. Jacobs suggests elsewhere in his book, I wonder how simply shutting down gizmos would change our brains back.”

The Millions (“On the Desire to Be Well-Read: A Review of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction”) shares some interesting meditations on Jacobs’ book (of which I have some rather mixed feelings on). Why people choose to read the types of books they do is a source of endless fascination for me — whenever I finish reading a book, I spend what is probably an inordinate amount of time deciding what I’ll read next. I wonder what reading literature means for casual readers. And what sorts of factors influence those decisions to read what we read? Book reviews, lists? Recommendations from friends? Some sort of guilt-by-osmosis about books that we “should” have read?

“Reading literature, Jacobs argues, ought to be a profoundly pleasurable activity, one we engage in primarily for the sake of enjoyment, and not out of obligation. We’d be happier, better readers if we stopped obsessing about what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, and what we haven’t read. We should let whim, rather than guilt or shame, propel our reading choices … But, as Jacobs contends in one of the book’s most honest moments, reading is not a virtuous activity, and it does not strengthen or elevate our character. Only by freeing ourselves from this misconception can we rediscover the private, at times anti-social joys of reading.”

It’s entirely possible, as The Millions review points out for us, that we have a complicated relationship between work and play, that sometimes the pleasure/duty aspects of reading good books become hard to pick out where precisely the one begins and the other ends:

“He even distinguishes between “whim,” the “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both” and “Whim,” a kind of intuition based on “self-knowledge” that allows us to satisfy our most authentic cravings …

While it labors to disentangle pleasure reading from dutiful reading , Jacobs’s book actually serves as a reminder of the inseparability of the two. Part of the enjoyment of reading a serious book or going, say, for a vigorous run is the belief that what you’re doing is difficult but good for you — that it offers proof of your character, even while it helps to build that character … Jacobs observes, “the American reading public, or a significant chunk of it anyway, can’t take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty”

And also — one of the more honest parts from this piece, which I think is a hard to answer question even after reading Jacobs’ book: so what if we don’t like reading literature? What if literature is not a source of readerly pleasure, are we just doomed to middlebrowish tastes?

“Paradoxically, in reserving his praise for this category of readers, those who read merely for pleasure and not in order to prove anything about themselves, Jacobs is, like any highbrow arbiter of taste, appealing to people’s aspirations. The cultural elite, after all, has always consisted of those whose good taste appeared spontaneous, effortless, inborn. Wouldn’t many savvy but ambitious middlebrow readers like to say and like to believe that they read solely for pleasure, that they find Shakespeare enjoyable simply because they are sensitive and intuitive enough to appreciate his wordplay, and not because they know they are supposed to appreciate it? … What if I didn’t enjoy King Lear? What did that mean about me? Wouldn’t I have no choice but to find a way to make myself enjoy it?”

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

NPR (“Easy ‘Reading’: Just Take It One Page At A Time”) also has a nice long excerpt from The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Check it out.


Surprise me


I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

What I’m Reading Now:

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

Related Articles

Have questions or ideas or requests for working together?

Get in touch