The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 150

Yes, we can!

  • How to Read a Book is all about the how of reading, motivated by an insecure drive for self-improvement. Jacobs witnesses lots of readers who lack confidence in their reading (5-6)
  • "Reading is one of the great human delights." (10), and this is the first reason we should read in the first place
  • He wants to offer a model of reading different from the "Responsibility, Obligation, and Virtue" of How to Read a Book (11)



  • Lots of people ask him for reading recommendations, but he never responds because (13):
    • You can get the "Greatest Hits" of Western Literature anywhere, so don't need him to tell it to you
    • People have different tastes, so a book that was meaningful to him might not be to you
    • He has a page on his website that nicely summarizes this
  • Quotes Rudyard Kipling's essay "The Uses of Reading": "One can't prescribe books, even the best books, to people unless one knows a good deal about each individual person. If a man is keen on reading, I think he ought to open his mind to some older man who knows him and his life, and to take his advice in the matter, and above all, to discuss with him the first books that interest him." (14)

Read for Whim: let the pleasure of reading be its end (14-16):

  • "...I don't like mixing reading with onerous duties." (14)
  • He uses the memoirs of Richard Rodriguez Hunger for Memory as an example of the mental state of reading as obligation he wants to avoid:
    • On reading Plato: "I needed to keep looking at the book jacket comments to remind myself what the text was about. Nevertheless,...I looked at every word of the text. And by the time I reached the last word, I convinced myself that I had read ~The Republic. In a ceremony of great pride, I solemnly crossed Plato off my list."
  • Rather, Jacobs is committed to read at whim which he learned from Randall Jarrell:
    • "To him [reading] wasn't a means to a lecture or article, it was an end; he read not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn't this what the work of art demands of us?" (15)
  • Don't let your reading become page-counting and box-checking (merely "social and ethical hygiene" as he quotes C. S. Lewis)..."how depressing" (17)
  • And don't be guided by Harold Bloom and others who preach an authoritative canon because it can only make people feel two ways (18-21):
    • Arrogant that "I and a few others like me, read the proper works"
    • "How can I be worthy of this high calling?"
  • Jacobs discusses pretension and signaling (21-22), which he says is "forgivable and even touching" in youth, but "can be unpleasant in a mature adult" (22)
  • His final recommendation? "Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don't make them your steady intellectual diet, any more that you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed." (23)
  • He closes (24-25) with a discussion of Walter Kirn and Cathleen Schine, and how they were able to discover their love for real reading well after reading as a forced activity
    • Kirn was playing an empty game of "learning as a form of borrowing" and "intelligence as a form of borrowing slyly".

All in your head

  • first he discusses the work of brain scientists (Wolf and Dehaene) discussing the physiology and neurology of reading, which he finds interesting but not the type of reading he is interested in
  • instead, take some inspiration from Dickens' David Copperfield: reading as if for life (31-33)
  • Jacobs marvels in the mystery of why we would read for whim as he previously recommends (33)


  • taking a balance between extreme whim and uptight rigor, Jacobs appeals to the "standard of the reader's own pleasure" (38)
  • Uses Gibbon as an example: a completely undisciplined and unregulated life is miserable (39)
  • We need to take ownership of our reading and know ourselves well enough to both be able to give up something that truly isn't worth our time, and keep at a book that isn't pleasurable right now but is good for us. The danger of Bloom or other authoritative guides is that they allow us to shirk our responsibility to know ourselves and own our reading. (43)
  • much of the rest of the book is devoted to asking the question of how to self-direct our reading while striking this balance


  • if you exhaust your favorite story, you can start by looking upstream of that author (what he/she read as influene)
  • For example in examining the reading-that-makes-the-writer for Tolkien: Beowulf, Eddas/sagas of medieval Iceland, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, music of Wagner, etc. (45)
  • This may be harder, but "some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble" becuase they strengthen our minds, improve our concentration, teach us patience and humility, and "lead to new and greater delights." (50)


  • Reading does not necessarily make you a better person, but if you read with that as a goal there are ways in which you can move that direction
  • We should answer the questions our reading puts to us (respond)
  • Mark up your books! Jacobs prefers a mechanical pencil as well.(61)


  • book: something long enough to be bound between covers (63)
  • codex: his footnote on 63 mentions that Christians were early adopters of the codex, just like James Turner does on page 24 (I remembered 23 so only one off) of Philology, though neither say explicitly why

Slowly, Slowly

  • "I believe that most people read quiclky because they want not to read but to have read." (72)
  • "Though few people realize it, many books become more boring the faster you read them." (74)
  • "It was the Duke of Gloucester who supposedly said, upon seeing a new installment of the great history, 'Another damned thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, sribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?' But there is surely something of the Duke in all of us." (75). ...indeed!
  • Funny quote about the slowness of reading bottom of 77

True confessions

  • (he uses Instapaper also) (78)
  • He likes reading on a Kindle because it helps make the process linear and remove some unnecessary distractions (81)
  • bottom of 82: thoughtful paragraph about technology as not necessarily "bad" for reading; indeed the codex is a great piece of technology and new digital technologies can in fact help reading


  • attentiveness is worth cultivating because rapt concentration (in reading, craft, love, etc.) is the source of some of life's great pleasures...this is the purpose of Whim (86)

Abbot Hugh's advice

  • Abbot Hugh of St. Victor (Paris) had a guide for readers, the Didascalicon
  • Take small steps in your reading, and in the development of your attention
  • Avoid pride in reading, which might cause you to avoid certain works or keep you from progressing in skill
  • footnote on 92 is a nice view of medieval hope: a pilgrim/wayfarer has hope and is between despair and presumption, both of which aren't going anywhere
  • ruminant animals (chew cud) provide a good model: read it, rest, then revisit it
    • for example, read poetry (at least 5 times), and perhaps memorize it

The triumphant return of Adler and Van Doren

  • "All books want our attention, but not all of them want the same kind of attention, and good readers know this and make the necessary adjustments." (98)

Plastic attention

  • Carr: neuro plasticity is not neuro "elasticity": the we form habits that can be hard to break
  • Hayle's thoughts about "deep attention" vs. "hyper attention"

Getting schooled

  • Wendy Griswold et. al. argue that post-WWII reading boom was unsustainable and we are returning to a reading class and a non-reading class, not "class" per-se but people who enjoy it and people who don't so much (107)
  • "Augustine's biographyer Peter Brown has commented that some of Augustine's intellectual eccentricities are the product of a 'a mind steeped too long in too few books'—something that can be said of almost nobody today." (109)
  • Bacon's famous quote about reading is really about filtering in an over-abundance of books to read
  • We need to learn how to skim, and how to skim well
  • Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose: a celebration of autodidacticism, as their love of reading was more vibrant before the introduction of literature in schools
    • Rose: "The autodidacts' mission statement was to be more than passive consumers of literature, to be active thinkers and writers. Those who proclaimed that 'knowledge is power' meant that the only true education is self-education, and they often regarded the expansion of formal educational opportunities with suspicion." (113-114)
  • We need to distinguish education from leisure: "Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about...skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours."(114)
    • To those who disagree, I would add my experience of disliking literature—despite getting good grates—in high school only to rediscover it slowly through my time in college and especially in my increased free time for reading after.

Quiet, please

  • The writer Stefan Zweig once defined a book as a “handful of silence that assuages torment and unrest.”
  • we need to learn to build our "cone of silence" for reading
  • ironic thought despite the plethora of digital distractions today: "surely a higher percentage of human beings today have regular access to silence tha nat any time in human history." (120)
  • the power of fiction if the deep imaginative engagement it creates, which can only come through deep solitude

Once more, with feeling

  • on re-reading books

Judge, jury, executioner

  • on being appropriately critical of what you read

In solitude, for company

  • He observed that book groups can be a poor alternative to genuine classroom discussions because often the book is just a front for talking about their emotional lives, etc (137)
  • a book is dialogically asymmetrical: we learn but they don’t learn about us; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (140)
  • Jacobs argues that group reading can be great, but is never a substitute for solitary reading


  • In choosing what we read, “we must consent to be guided by the invisible hand of serendipity.” (143)