by Alan Jacobs
Hardcover, 150 pg.
Oxford University Press, USA, 2011
Read: December 21 – 25, 2015
A while back my teenage son drifted into the room where I was reading, tilting his head to catch the title of the book in my hands. It was that venerable classic How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. “Oh man, he said, “I had to read that in school last year. Maybe I learned something about how to read a book, but after that I never wanted to read a book again.”
Oh, I hear ya, brother! I endured Adler/van Doren for a graduate-level course and thought it was one of the most pointless books I’d ever read. Now, Jacobs finds more profit in the tome than I do, but he’s clearly not a fan.
The book starts with a call to read what you want, reading based on whim, rather than thinking of it as a self-improvement program (which it is, in a way, but it doesn’t have to be followed like one). In fact, Alden, Harold Bloom, etc. turn
reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens. . . That sort of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”
Instead, Jacobs calls for people to:
Read what gives you delight–at least most of the time–and 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 than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day.
Jacobs is a Professor of the Humanities at Baylor University, and author of many books and articles on books, reading, and authors. He’s one of those guys I’ve seen the name of everywhere, and associated with insight, but if push came to shove, I couldn’t tell you why. But now he’s the professor I wish I had (nothing against most of the early ’90s English department at the University of Idaho, most).
Reading on a whim doesn’t mean you can’t stretch yourself, read above your comfort level, or to better yourself — but you do it because it interests you, because you want to (and when you want to), rather than subjecting yourself to someone’s checklist.
After that, Jacobs moves into trying to understand how reading works, how it captures so many imaginations — and sure, he cites some studies that explain how we take black marks on paper and make them ideas in our head, at some point even the professionals have to stop and say, “it just works.” (but Jacob puts it better).
We also get discussion about the “iron-clad Law of Diminishing Returns” regarding rereading too soon (and yet, why we should reread). An interesting defense of/encouragement of fanfic. I was surprised, quite surprised, at his advocacy for e-Readers — I fully expected him to be solidly Dead Tree Edition Only, whoops — I don’t use my Kindle the way he does, but I can see where it’d work for him (or Nook, either). Why a lot of the doomsayers about the state of reading/publishing are wrong.
But mostly this is advice and guidance for the reader trying to recapture the same joy that he had before (or never had), encouragement for the active reader to keep at it, the person who still can’t get poetry, etc., etc.
I can’t resist another quotation. Towards the end of the book, he talks about the joy of finding a book by Serendipity:
serendipity is the near relation of Whim; each stands against the Plan.
Plan once appealed to me, but I have grown to be a natural worshiper of Serendipity and Whim; I can try to serve other gods, but my heart is never in it. I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan.
Charmingly written, full of allusions (that most of us can get even without reading the works), witticisms and research — a book to entertain and edify. This one really speaks to me as a reader — it’s practically a mission statement for this blog. I expect I’ll come back to this one soon (maybe even annually). Still, for this time, I’m rating it 4-Stars, though I expect it’s a 5-Star book. I think it’s because I read it in 2-5 page spurts (one of those weeks, y’know?) after I got to page 70. Which doesn’t do the thing any favors. Towards the end of the book, Jacobs says:
All books want our attention, but not all of them want the same kind of attention.
I didn’t give this the right kind, and I’ll regret that for awhile.
If you like this blog, you’ll dig this book.
Big Thanks to Aman Mittal for pointing me to this book — I haven’t read his take on it in a couple of months, so I don’t know how much we agree, but I know his post made me look for the book.