The fact is that people don't read anymore." Or so Steve Jobs said, in 2008, two years before the introduction of the iPad. Such pronouncements abound nowadays—often appearing in … books. But the most thoughtful reflection on the subject comes without any apocalyptic huffing and puffing. In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press), Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College, is sanguine about the future of reading and the book, and positively seductive when he urges us to read "for the plain old delight and interest of it, not because we can justify its place on the mental spreadsheet or accounting ledger." Books & Culture editor John Wilson talked with Jacobs about the distractions that beckon us, the virtues of the Kindle (and, by extension, similar devices), and the rewards of reading with concentrated attention.
In the journal Historically Speaking, historian Timothy Snyder laments how Internet access distracts students in the classroom. Does this track with your own experience as a professor?
I decided some years ago that I was not going to allow laptops in the classroom. And the main reason was actually not because of the distractions involved, though they are multiple. I will walk sometimes down the halls of Wheaton and I'll look into a classroom, and I'll see a student sitting in the back of the room clearly doing Facebook or playing Solitaire or involved in some sort of game while the teacher is talking, and I know that that person has only minimal attention. So I'm aware of that as a problem, and I don't want my students to have that problem.
But I actually banned laptops for a different reason. There's ...