In honor of the official start to summer and my plan to read many books by the pool, I picked up Alan Jacobs' new The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction this past weekend. The book is full of reminders of the joys of reading in the midst of Twitter and texting temptations. Shut down the computer, put aside the cell phone, lock your gadgets in the car before going into a coffee shop, the Wheaton College English professor recommends. He warns, however, against turning reading into a chore.
So this is what I say to my petitioners: for heaven's sake, don't turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the "calories burned" readout—some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C.S. Lewis once called "social and ethical hygiene."
In Lewis's view, which I largely share, the tendency to think of reading in these terms arises when critics, especially memberrs of what Lewis called "the Vigilant school," convince others that they are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what reading counts.
Read at whim, Jacobs says, with serendipity. He cautions against creating lists for fear of turning reading into broccoli. "This choosing reader is never merely passive, never simply a consumer, but constantly engages in critical judgment, sometimes withholding sympathy with a thoughtful wariness, and then, in the most blessed moments, when trust has been earned, ...1
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