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.
You discovered, a couple of years ago, that your reading in books had steeply declined, due to the digital distractions that bedevil your students. That doesn't mean you necessarily read much less, because of course you take in an awful lot through the Internet. But the Kindle helped you return to your customary diet of books.
I was in a bookstore—the local Borders, which has since closed its doors—and I had pulled several books off the shelves. One of them was Diarmaid MacCulloch's history of the Reformation, and another was Neal Stephenson's novel Anathem, and I had two or three others sort of crawling up my arm. They were all hefty, and they were also books with small print. And I just thought, I don't want to lug all these around. When I get home, I don't know where I'm going to put them. Forget this; I'm going to buy a Kindle. So I put the books back on the shelves, bought the Kindle, and got the books that way. And I found, to my surprise, that the Kindle proved to be extremely helpful to me in restoring my ability to concentrate.
One source of distraction is bodily. You're reading a book, and your hand starts to twitch because you know that you can grab your smartphone or your iPad or even your laptop and do something with your fingers that will bring up new information. With the book you're not necessarily doing so much with your fingers. I found that pushing the next-page button on the Kindle tended to satisfy that physical desire, that somatic desire, to do something.
I was focusing on reading because my finger had something to do from time to time. And I was really surprised at how quickly my ability to read for long, uninterrupted periods was restored. I would suppose right now that roughly half of my reading is Kindle reading. When I'm reading for fun, when I just want to read a good story, if it's available on the Kindle, that's what I'll do.
Not long ago, you wrote about Samuel Johnson for Books & Culture. There's a famous portrait of Johnson in which he's holding a book close to his face—clutching it, really, with tremendous intensity—and he seems to be absolutely sucking the juice from the book. It gives a striking illustration of your argument that reading demands a particular kind of attention.
Yes. Recently I went to a commencement ceremony at the Greenhouse, a co-op of sorts for Christian homeschoolers here in Wheaton. Kids go to school there one day a week, and it provides a kind of a spine for their homeschooling curriculum. The commencement service consisted largely of children reciting things that they had memorized. For the younger children it might be a Bible verse; for the older children it got more and more ambitious, with the 14-year-olds reciting lengthy passages from Shakespeare. Someone did Richard II's speech about weeping over the death of kings. Somebody did Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strain'd." Then there was a student who did one of Queen Elizabeth's speeches, and another one who did John Donne's "Meditation 17": "No man is an island, entire of itself." And at the end of it I thought, I don't know that I've ever spent a more delightful hour at an official educational ceremony. By and large, the kids had internalized these wonderful words, and they were saying them with some conviction and understanding.
Those kids have been taught that to read is not just to scan their eyes across the page but to know it by heart, and then to speak it for others. (George Steiner, the literary scholar, is really good on that phrase, "to know something by heart," which means more than being able to recite a text word-for-word.) That's really reading. That's the whole trajectory of the reading experience—taking the words in, knowing them by heart, and then bringing them forth again. It's really beautiful to see.
Your delight at that ceremony reminds me of the most salient theme in your book: the sheer pleasure of reading. It's a powerful corrective to much that we hear. But I think it will be challenging to some readers and audiences, especially in academic or intellectual settings where people feel obligated to read certain books. You say early in the book that your overriding rule for reading is Read at whim. What do you mean?
Where this really got started was with the many, many students who have come to me over the years after graduating from Wheaton. And they think, Oh, there are so many important books I haven't read. They come to many teachers, but I get my fair share of them. They come to me and say, "Give me 10 books that I should read over the next year." Or: "Give me 10 books that you think everyone should read." I always find myself thinking, Read what you want to read. Since you were 6 years old you've been reading things that people told you to read. Now you don't have to do that anymore, unless you're going to graduate school. Go out and read what strikes you as being fun.
I don't think these students trust themselves to be readers on their own. They want to continue the sort of reading under direction that they have experienced ever since they started school. Over the years I've gotten absolutely stiff-necked about it. I refuse to give any recommendations. I say, "Go and read for fun," because that sense of reading as a duty is not going to carry you through. It's not going to sustain you as a vibrant reader, as you will be if you read what gives you delight. You may have actually lost some of that sense of delight over the years reading primarily for school. So go out there and have fun with it.
What will happen when people do that? Will they read frivolous things? Yes—at least I certainly hope so. I quote W. H. Auden, who says that the great masterpieces should be reserved for the "high holidays of the spirit." You're not designed for a steady diet of literary masterpieces any more than you would eat a seven-course French meal every day. At one point, Auden says it's not only permissible but admirable not always to be in the mood for Dante. And I think that's right. Sometimes you just want a lighter fare.
Auden himself liked detective stories and doggerel poetry and other things that many of his peers would have looked down their noses at. I want people to recover that sense of pleasure. Of course you're going to want the heavier stuff. You're going to want the stuff that's possibly life-changing. But for heaven's sake, don't turn reading into a matter of eating your literary vegetables. I don't think that's healthy in the long run.
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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
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Previous articles on reading include:
Survey: Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal | What a surprising survey says about how reading the Bible frequently can turn you liberal (in some ways). (October 12, 2011)
How to Read the Bible | New strategies for interpreting Scripture turn out to be not so new—and deepen our life in Christ. (October 7, 2011)
Words That Nourish | To read well is to prepare oneself to live wisely, kindly, and wittily. (February 23, 2011)
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