by Alan Jacobs
Hardcover, 150 pg.
Read: January 2-3, 2020
Read would give 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 study intellectual diet, any more than 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 accessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there’s something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit”—for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.
I picked this up as my first book of the year as a way to refresh the mind, come into the year with a reminder of what kind of reader I want to be. As I write this, I’m deliberately not looking at what I wrote last time I read this, but you may find it interesting. Maybe not. I don’t know if I’ll end up repeating myself.
I remember this book being as close to a mission statement for my approach to reading as you could hope for—particularly because I came to it late in life. It’s not like this is a book I read in college and it shaped me/my thinking, but it’s something that I came to a couple of years ago and it was as if a more erudite and thoughtful version of myself had written it.
The beginning of the book is the heart of it, he sets forth his central theses, core argument:
one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim.
Reading shouldn’t be about self-improvement (primarily), it isn’t the mental equivalent of eating Brussels Sprouts. It should be for pleasure. And to maximize that, Jacobs will argue—read at whim.
Following that, Jacobs talks about many aspects of reading for pleasure—note-taking, thinking about what we read, focus (and how to expand it), the role of ereaders (he’s surprisingly pro-ereader), fighting distractions, evaluating what we read and more.
I was particularly struck this time through by his section on re-reading. For growing in appreciation for, or understanding of a work. Or because you enjoy escaping into a well-known and beloved world for a period.
Jacobs frequently quotes Auden, at one point he cites Auden’s five ratings for a book—I think we should maybe replace the standard 5-Star system with this:
For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I should come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.
Most of all, this is a celebration of/appreciation of reading. Jacobs is a kindred spirit to us readers as well as a humanities professor. Reading is both a passion and a profession—and both (particularly the former) are clearly seen in these pages.
Our goal as adults is not to love all books alike, or as few as possible, but rather to love as widely and as well as our limited selves will allow.
Hear, hear. That’s a good reminder.
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