Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Jacobs: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Alan Jacobs (2011) The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction Oxford University Press, New York; 176 pp.; ISBN 978-0-19-974749-8

Alan Jacobs is an academic who teaches literature, so is aware that to some degree in this book he is preaching to the converted. The group he aims to interest is people who like to read but who find themselves distracted by all the time-consuming and often mind-numbing diversions that modern technology provides. If you have ever sat at lunch talking to someone who is twiddling on their tablet or texting on their mobile, you will know exactly what the distractions are and how annoying (and tempting) they can be.

Jacobs distinguishes two kinds of reading: deep attention and hyper attention. The former is where we maintain a sustained focus on a book and is most suited to situations where we are looking to intensify our understanding or to lose ourselves in enjoyment. Hyper attention is characterised by skimming and looking at the structure of a book, and is more suited to reading where the primary goal is to glean information. The two are not mutually exclusive: often we use hyper reading in order to select things for deep attention, and Jacobs argues that our education system needs to teach both modes in order to improve our skills in deciding which one to apply to any given text.

Being able to decide what to read and how you will read it gives us a greater measure of control over our lives. Jacobs warns against being seduced by lists of worthy books to read or an established canon of literature. There is an extraordinary diversity of books out there, so we need to become self-confident navigators rather than steerage class passengers being fed pap by the ‘experts’. Jacobs’s principle is to ‘read at Whim’ (with a capital W), which is not just random reading, but making informed choices along the way.

The book provides some tips on how to improve our deep attention when reading, and how to balance this with hyper attention in order to choose our reading more thoughtfully. Jacobs is rightly scornful of the concept of ‘multi-tasking’, which is generally an excuse for not doing anything properly.

Jacobs is a proponent of highlighting, underlining and annotating books, though he appreciates that this might cause problems if you borrow your books from a public library (still, he doesn’t hold library books to be sacrosanct). E-readers allow extensive annotations, highlighting and bookmarking, and even sharing of your highlights with others, but Jacobs notes that the system is not yet a match for annotations on paper.

His own experience with an e-reader is that it has increased the amount of deep attention reading he has been doing. He puts this down to the fact that accessing distractions on his e-reader is clumsy and takes too much time. I have found the same thing since buying an e-reader, becoming more regularly absorbed in books for much longer periods, though I cannot put my finger on the reasons for this. It is counter-intuitive to what we expect from modern technology, but a pleasing result.

Many people re-read books, sometimes on a regular basis or sometimes after an interval of many years. This can be a useful learning experience, to see how our reactions change over time and to see how our judgement of a book can vary depending on our circumstances and accumulated experiences. As I get older I have appreciated books that left me cold in my youth, and others that stirred my imagination now seem shallow and uninspiring. Others, of course, retain their magic and can open up ever new perspectives each time they are read.

In the closing section of his book, Jacobs describes the act of reading to a child as an act of love, and a pleasurable experience with books when young is likely to build a love of reading in the longer term. But reading is not an innate skill like language and speech. The part of the brain used for reading is quite different to that used for other language functions. It is certainly a rewarding skill to learn, and Jacobs has written a short but appealing book that will hopefully reignite people’s interest in reading more wisely and more often.

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