Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pleasures of Reading

I just finished Alan Jacobs's new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It has been getting some press attention lately, with a review in the Wall Street Journal, as well as an adaptation in the Chronicle of Higher Education

I have to admit that I was a little worried about the title, at first glance. While Jacobs is decidely not a member of the "turn off your computer" camp (or their predecessors, the "turn off your TV" crowd), who assume a negative causal relationship between media engagement and the quality of one's reading, he does point to the ways in which the the obligations of educated refinement (promoted especially in academia), as well as the information triaging necessitated by the hyper-culture of social media, create a great deal of anxiety about sustained, deep, and enthusiastic reading. We feel we should get lost in a book, but we can't. When we do, it feels a little strange. 

First, kudos to Jacobs for trying to capture the pleasures of reading (even though he admits that it is truly impossible to convey what a "page-turner" feels like). I certainly love books in they ways that Jacobs describes and can attest to the ways in which chance encounters with individual works have changed my life. I also appreciate the ways in which he attempts to situate that joy in the context of contemporary culture, assuaging lack of confidence about "reading properly" or about "reading deeply" by encouraging "reading at whim," that is, to fully embrace the experiences of reading that feel right, no matter the dictates of taste or the competing demands on one's attention. As he writes, "The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside what we usually think of as good reasons. It's asking us to stop calculating. It's asking us to do something for the plain old delight and interest of it, not because we can justify its place on the mental spreadsheet or accounting ledger (like the one Benjamin Franklin kept) by which we tote up the value of our actions" (16).

This is, as he suggests, not so much the function of a "good book" itself, but rather of one's general approach to the ecstatic potential of any encounter with a book. That is, we read deeply when we accept, or, at least, leave ourselves open to the premise that "books are the natural and inevitable and permanent means of being absorbed in something other than the self" (116). While Jacobs tends to talk about fandom as a kind of extremism, I'd suggest that this approach to books more accurately describes fandom as it is experienced: a recognition of a performer or performance (including "texts" of all kinds--books, movies, music, art, etc.) as having the ongoing potential to move, transform, connect, and otherwise wrest one from torpor. As Tia Denora put it, we engage in culture to "aesthetize ourselves." Fan engagement can sometimes appear aberrant (when fans embrace a work that is not canonical) and it can sometimes appear obsessive (when fans allegedly spend too much time engaging one work or author), but its mode of hopeful enthusiastic engagement is unabashedly catholic and deeply pleasurable, often facilitating a kind of lasting and meaningful learning that cannot be attained through other means.

Jacobs focuses a bit too much for my taste on quietude, on shutting down cultural "distraction," though I do recognize the need for many to carve out time for sustained reading. Rather than turning things off, I always encourage my students to simply treat books differently. I tell them, first, to understand reading as not simply a mechanical movement of eyes over a page, but rather as the development of a relationship, much like one you might develop with a person. "Reading," in fact, is always a complex and unique story of encounter, flirtation, acquaintance, and knowing. It's a little weird, but I ask students to carry their books around with them, place them nearby when they are not reading (on their drawing desks, at the dinner table, etc.), and, in Whitman-esque fashion, get to know them, even unopened, as daily companions and even as old friends. I hope, this, in turn, leads to a reformation in their minds of what a book is. When some complain that a book is "dry" or "boring," or even when they assert that a book is "exciting," I tell them that, in fact, it is their relationship to the book that is "dry" or "boring" or "exciting." Books are just books; their meaning and transformative power depend on how readers bring them to life. 

These are just some of my own techniques for keeping the pleasures of reading alive; on the whole, I think Jacobs and I are far more in sync than apart. Perhaps more so than Jacobs, I sense that all this might be futile: maybe the pleasures of sustained reading are indeed being erased and are likely to be lost to us in the future. But, really, I don't know. Like Jacobs--and, I think, teachers in general--I hopefully and defiantly try to keep it alive anyway. (The cliché of teacher-motivation is true: "If I can just reach one person....").

I wish you all absorbing and transformative reading.

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