Don't Worry, Read Happy: Alan Jacobs on The Pleasures of Reading
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
Oxford University Press, USA
May 26, 2011
176 pp., $15.59
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 a technology that we call the book, and many of us tend to assume that, well, everybody knows how to use books. Books are easy. It's the modern technologies that students need to be trained to use effectively. And I think, No, not really. A book is actually not that easy to know how to use well, especially for young people who haven't formed the habit of attending carefully to how they work.
So I tell my students, "Look, I want you to have the book in your hand. Take notes if you want to. I would prefer you to take notes in the book. Or if you don't want to write in books, get sticky notes, or do something. But I want you to be engaged with this technology." I want to be able to say, "Okay, put your finger there on page 36 and now let's go over to page 130." And I want to be able to go back and forth between the two. For many of them this is very unfamiliar. They're used to dealing with books in different ways. One of the really interesting things about getting them to work with a book is that it's a lot harder for them to get distracted, because I'm actually pushing them to make fuller use of this technology.
So for quite some time I've been keeping electronic technologies out of the classroom, even though I encourage students to use such technologies outside the classroom. While we're in the room together, the book is the technology I want everybody focused on. And the students seem to get that. In fact, I think they find it something of a relief to put their computers aside and engage with something else. Though every now and then I do see a student checking his or her smartphone under the desk.