Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reading books

I wanted to send my BUILD students (see here for explanation of BUILD) home for the summer with a book called, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011) by Alan Jacobs.  I had read a few things about it, but had never read it myself.  So I figured I should read it to see if I made a good decision, and got through its 150 pages in just a few sittings.  It's very engaging (at least to me), and perhaps the highest compliment I could pay it is to say that it made me want to read more books.

There is a fairly deep irony in my giving this book to students and saying, "Go read this book," because the central claim of the book is that you should read what you want to read and not be shamed into reading things because someone else thinks you should read them.  (Now of course we're not talking about formal education here, where books are prescribed for you to read.)  I'm one who has been influenced by book lists that other people put together and by the claims that you ought to be reading these specific books (remember my tale of such an experience here).  I enjoy browsing through the lists of the top 100 novels of the 20th century to see how many I've read, and which ones I should tackle next.  For several years I've kept track of the books I've read cover-to-cover, as though the point of reading is to get done with a book or to check something off a list.  That fits with the kind of person who wants to have read books, but doesn't really care that much about the actual reading of them.

Jacobs's approach is the opposite.  He says that he has a "commitment to one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim" (p. 15).  He says to read what gives you delight (at least most of the time) and do so without shame.  Read slowly and re-read in order to get lost in the books you like the most.  Yes, sometimes you have to read for information, like I was doing this morning with the owner's manual of our water heater that seems to have given up its primary function.  But there is a certain segment of people (certainly not everyone) who read for understanding and for pleasure.  We live in a society that is increasingly pushing us toward scattered, short attention spans.  And many of us have become very adept at shifting between tasks (it turns out that no one actually multitasks).  But for understanding and pleasure, deep attention is what is called for.  Many people think they can't do that anymore.  I suspect that anyone who really wants to can train themselves to do it.  But it's easier not to train ourselves.  Many don't really want to (though they might want to want it).

So, I'm not making a reading list for the summer as I have done sometimes.  I don't care how many books I read for fun this summer, nor am I particularly interested in reading the "right" ones.  It is my goal instead to enjoy reading this summer.  To revel in the words, to marvel at the fact that splotches of ink on a page in a certain pattern can evoke such thoughts and feelings.  Jacobs says a good way to start into that sort of reading is with poetry.  You don't read poetry for information.  So at midnight last night (after giving up on my water heater), I pulled a book of poems off a shelf that doesn't get visited very much.  They are by Y.B. Yeats, and I bought it at a book shop in Dublin, thinking it a fitting souvenir from Ireland.  Here's a nice pithy one that speaks to some things I've been thinking about.  Read it and cogitate over it -- or don't, if you'd rather not.
The Coming of Wisdom with Time 
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

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