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Easy ‘Reading’: Just Take It One Page At A Time

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 9, 2011

Can’t you read?

I don’t mean can you read, like, can you look at this sentence and identify which worm I’ve spelled incorrectly. I mean, in your busy life — with its dozen screens and four separate calendars and nursery-school pickup times calibrated to an atomic clock for maximum efficiency — do you find you can’t make yourself sit down and read a novel? How about one of those long New Yorker pieces? Or even this book review — the whole thing, without once pausing to click this link, the one to the amazing video of the city of Grand Rapids “lipdubbing” “American Pie.”

If so — if, as I imagine, it’s now nine minutes later and you have Don McLean stuck in your head — then Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction just might be for you. Yes, it’s a little foolhardy to recommend a book as the remedy for an inability to read books — akin to a doctor advising an impotent patient to just try having more sex. But Jacobs’ little, witty ode to pleasure found between hardcovers is a useful reminder of the joy of text.

Jacobs, an English professor and a biographer of C.S. Lewis, explains that even in an era of unparalleled reading options — books, Web sites, magazines, blogs, Tumblrs, #Longreads, all of them available on Kindles, Nooks, iPads, laptops, phones, or, whaddyacallit, paper — he sees that many once-avid readers have become diffident. “They wonder if they are reading well,” he writes, “with focus and attentiveness, with discretion and discernment.”

The solution? “Don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens,” he urges. Read at whim, without shame and for pleasure.

But what if, like me, you still feel the need, no matter how immature, to show well at cocktail parties? “There is an alternative,” Jacobs helpfully points out. “It’s called lying.”

Jacobs is scornful of the kinds of Great Books lists that so often stud treatises about reading. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading The Pleasures of Reading is watching Jacobs tee off on titles like the “dreadful” 1001 Books to Read Before You Die or Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book. I particularly enjoyed Jacobs’ exasperation with canon father Harold Bloom, whom he calls “positively Athenian” in his snobbery.

Of course, the careful reader — one who follows Jacobs’ very astute observation that “many books become more boring the faster you read them” — might come out of The Pleasures of Reading with a book list nonetheless, because Jacobs has a magpie’s eye for wonderful quotes from authors famous and obscure. It’s pretty clear that he loves J.K. Rowling, The Onion and David Foster Wallace. He cherry-picks some great Auden, and offers a thorough discussion of a story by the near-forgotten sci-fi master R.A. Lafferty.

Best of all is his use of Martin Amis’ 1984 masterpiece Money, whose awful hero, John Self, Jacobs treats as something of a patron saint of frustrated readers. Television director Self, trying to impress a girl, endeavors to read Animal Farm, and his paroxysms of self-doubt and confusion still cut to the quick.

Reading takes a long time, though, don’t you find? It takes such a long time to get from, say, page 21 to page 30. I mean, first you’ve got page 23, then page 25, then page 27, then page 29, not to mention the even numbers. Then page 30 … there’s no end to it.

I had no similar problems with the enjoyable The Pleasures of Reading. I read much of it slowly, as Jacobs suggests, and, when necessary, I skimmed, as he recommends. But I read the whole thing. Would I lie? [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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