Excerpt “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction”

Copyrighted Material

Whim: Several times a year I get requests from people—usually students, but also friends and acquaintances, and even total strangers who have managed to find my email address—who want reading lists. “Dear Professor Jacobs, could you please give me your recommendations for what I should read this summer?” “Dear Professor, in your opinion what are the ten most important books that every educated person should read?” —that kind of thing. It’s clear that many people think in such terms: witness the popularity of the “One Thousand X You Should X Before You Die” books.

I never comply with these requests.

There are a few reasons why, and both of them are related to my views about the value and pleasure of reading. First, if people just want a list of the Greatest Hits of Western Literature (the Iliad, Dante’s Divine Comedy,HamletParadise LostThe Brothers Karamazov), they can get that anywhere. Indeed, they probably already know what items go on that list. So presumably they want something else, though it’s not always clear to me, and perhaps not to them, precisely what. My sense is that they want either books that have been particularly important to me, or else the kind of book that gets written up in magazines as a “forgotten masterpiece.” But there are many, many books that would fit into that latter category; and there is little reason to think that a book will be especially interesting or helpful to someone else just because I like it. Another person may not have my inclinations, interests, or personal needs.

Now, if people came to me and said, “Here’s a list of ten of my favorite books—can you think of some others I’m likely to enjoy?” I would be more likely—and better prepared—to answer. But that rarely happens, which is unfortunate: as much as I dislike the general, abstract, decontextualized lists that people tend to ask for, I love making recommendations to people I know and whose interests and tastes are familiar to me. Not long ago, as I (delightedly) worked my way through Neal Stephenson’s vast science-fiction opus Anathem, I kept thinking of a friend whose major passions are embodied in that book. So as soon as I finished the story I ran right out to my local Borders, bought a second copy, and delivered it to his door with an exhortation to read it as soon as was humanly possible. I wasn’t sure, of course, whether my friend would in the end like the book, but I knew he would be fascinated by much that happens in it, and, above all, I knew that we would have some enjoyable conversations about Stephenson’s story.

In such a context of friendship and mutual interest, the making of recommendations is a pleasure. Outside of that, it quickly becomes an onerous (and perhaps pointless) duty, and I don’t like mixing reading with onerous duties. Moreover, in many cases these requests have little to do with actually reading anything, but rather with having read — with the desire to say, Yes, now I can check that one off. In his marvelous memoirHunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez describes how he once experienced this curious compulsion: “In the fourth grade,” he writes, “I embarked on a grandiose reading program.” He asked his teachers for lists of “important books,” which he then began dutifully to read, without having any sense of what made the books worthwhile.

I decided to record in a notebook the themes of the books that I read. After reading Robinson Crusoe, I wrote that its theme was “the value of learning to live by oneself.” When I completed Wuthering Heights, I noted the danger of “letting emotions get out of control.” Regarding these brief moralistic appraisals usually left me disheartened. I couldn’t believe that they were really the source of reading’s value. But for many more years, they constituted the only means I had of describing to myself the educational value of books.

It is true, of course, that adult readers are unlikely to be quite as naïve as the young Rodriguez was: the people who ask me for reading recommendations aren’t likely to write the themes of books in a notebook or on three-by-five cards. But the difference is not as great as one might suppose; the sense of obligation is much the same. Rodriguez’s experience of reading, say, Plato’s Republic might not be altogether alien to that of many of his elders: “I needed to keep looking at the book jacket comments to remind myself what the text was about. Nevertheless, …I looked at every word of the text. And by the time I reached the last word, I convinced myself that I had read The Republic. In a ceremony of great pride, I solemnly crossed Plato off my list.”

So one reason I usually decline to give reading recommendation is that I don’t want to encourage such habits of mind. But there’s a positive counterpart to this negative reason: my commitment to one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim. I learned this principle from the essayist and poet Randall Jarrell, who once met a scholar, a learned man and a critic, who commented that he read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim every year. Jarrell’s response:
The critic said that once a year he read Kim; and he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love — he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means — that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!

Now, it might seem at first that Jarrell contradicts himself in this passage: first he commends reading a book “for itself,” then he commends reading a book because it tells me that I must change my life. But the contradiction is only apparent. The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside 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.

Early in How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren explain that reading is something one does primarily for information and understanding. But they then add, somewhat apologetically,

Of course, there is still another goal of reading, besides gaining information and understanding, and that is entertainment. However, this book will not be much concerned with reading for entertainment. It is the least demanding kind of reading, and it requires the least amount of effort. Furthermore, there are no rules for it. Everyone who knows how to read at all can read for entertainment if he wants to.

But Richard Rodriguez’s story makes me wonder if this is true. It seems to me that it is not so hard to absorb, and early in life, the idea that reading is so good for you, so loaded with vitamin-rich, high-fiber information and understanding, that it can’t possibly be pleasurable—that to read for the joy of it is fundamentally inappropriate.

So here’s what I say to my petitioners: for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout—some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Anna Karenina with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”

In Lewis’s view, which I largely share, the tendency to think of reading in these terms arises when critics, especially members of what Lewis called “the Vigilant school,” convince others that they are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts. When Lewis wrote those words, the leading Vigilant Critic in England was Lewis’s fellow Cambridge don, F. R. Leavis; in my place and time, no one is more Vigilant than Harold Bloom.

Some years back Bloom wrote a book called How to Read and Why, but it really should have been called What to Read and What to Think about It. It consists of many short chapters on novels, stories, and poems that belong to the Bloomian canon, chapters in which Bloom simply tells you what’s important about each work and what, in general terms, it means. Though there are a few brief sections of “summary observations” in which Bloom gives some supposedly practical advice, the advice of the book as a whole is simply “Do as I say and do as I do.”

Bloom has little patience for those who would expend their reading energy on non-masterpieces. If he does not have his own version of the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, he can certainly sound like he does. Consider this: in 2003 he wrote that there are only four active American writers who “deserve our praise”: Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. Of course, Bloom doesn’t actually suggest that less excellent writers should be forbidden — only that we’re wasting our time by reading them.

By way of illustration, we might reflect on Bloom’s notorious agonies about the popularity of Harry Potter. And we should begin by noting that this is not a subject on which Bloom is perfectly rational: for instance, he writes of his first encounter with J. K. Rowling, “As I read, I noticed that every time a character went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the character ‘stretched his legs.’ I began marking on the back of an envelope every time that phrase was repeated. I stopped only after I had marked the envelope several dozen times.” Now, how many dozen would be “several dozen”? Four at least, I would think. So Bloom is telling us that he counted fifty or more instances of the phrase “stretched his legs” in some unspecified part (half? two-thirds?) of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This would require, not incidentally, that the book contain more than fifty instances of characters taking walks. But I will say no more, except to encourage the reader to make her own count, and to suggest that discounting Bloom’s tally by a factor of twenty might bring us closer to the mark.

Some among the ancient Athenians divided human beings into two groups, those who possess arete—virtue, excellence—and those who don’t, with the latter being fit for mockery or even slavery. When he makes proclamations about reading Bloom can sound rather Athenian. He straightforwardly doubts that people who read Harry Potter will be willing to, or could be made to, read anything else. “A host are reading it who simply will not read superior fare, such as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows or the ‘Alice’ books of Lewis Carroll.” And in another context: “Harry Potter will not lead our children on to Kipling’s Just So Stories or his Jungle Book. It will not lead them to Thurber’s Thirteen Clocks or Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows or Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice.’” This is nothing if not definitive, and is therefore of a piece with his comment (to Newsweek magazine in 2007) about the enormous sales of the Potter series: “I know of no larger indictment of the world’s descent into subliteracy.”

Bloom uses the term “subliteracy” seriously: he doubts whether people who read the Harry Potter books are actually reading at all. Her readers are “non-readers,” and the primary benefit they derive from her books is to be “momentarily emancipated from their screens,” so that they “may not forget wholly the sensation of turning the pages of a book, any book.” But what good does that do, if they will never go on to “superior fare”?

“Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do”—but, really, “Is there any redeeming educational use to Rowling? …Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?” Indeed: why not just stick with the screens?—if that’s all you’re good for. If you lack arete.

(Bloom emphasized this point in am interview with Ray Suarez, in August of 2000, on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. When Suarez commented, “So you have no truck with those who say, ‘well, at least they’re reading,’ whether speaking of adults or children,” Bloom replied, “Ray, they’re not really. Their eyes are passing over a page. They are turning the page. Their minds are being numbed by cliché. No demands are being made upon them. Nothing… Nothing is happening to them. They’re being schooled in what you might call unreality or the avoidance of reality.”)

A recent story in The Washington Post quotes a professor named Eric Williamson who declares of his students, “There is nary a student in the classroom ]—and this goes for English majors, too—who wouldn’t pronounce Stephen King a better author than Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. The students do not have any shame about reading inferior texts.” Let’s leave aside the question of whether Stephen King is a poorer writer than Barthelme or Vollmann (I wonder if Professor Williamson has ever actually made a case for his verdict in this matter) and simply ask whether we want people to read Barthelme or Vollmann or anyone else out of a sense of shame—not because they are intriguedThe Dead Father or think that Rising Up and Rising Down is urgent and powerful, but because they want to be seen holding such books and would be humiliated if Professor Williamson caught them with a copy of Cujo in hand. There’s much more wisdom in a statement by the magnificently snobby and elitist critic Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982), who called himself a “conservative anarchist” and once commented, “Well, I say, being an anarchist, that I don’t believe in taking people by the hand and force-feeding them culture. I think they should make their own decisions. If they want to go to museums and concerts, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be seduced into doing it or shamed into doing it.”

There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that Bloom’s approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—“Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works”—or it can terrify them—“How can I be worthy of this high calling?” Neither response has anything to do with genuine reading. Thus Lewis, Bloom’s polar opposite in this matter, imagines a group of educated adults, having been well instructed by the Vigilants, complacently discussing their recent reading. “Yet, while this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island”—or, perhaps, Harry Potter—“under the bedclothes by the light of an electric torch.”

Now, I must admit that there’s a message worth noting from the other side of the readerly street. James Murphy, the lead singer for the band LCD Soundsystem, had this to say about his own reading experiences: “I actually want to write a treatise in defence of pretension. . . . I think the word pretension has become like the word ironic—just this catch–all term to distance people from interesting experiences and cultural engagement and possible embarrassment. Pretension can lead to other things. You know, the first time I read Gravity’s Rainbow, I did so because I thought it would make me seem cool. That was my original motivation. But now I’ve read it six times, and I find it hilarious and great and I understand it. You can’t be afraid to embarrass yourself sometimes.” “Pretension can lead to other things” is a wise word. Young people often signal through their pretensions what they hope to become: they have discerned, maybe in a limited way, some good and they are pursuing it as best they can, given limited knowledge and experience. They see people whom they admire, or are in some ay attracted to, and they try to copy the preferences of those paragons. Such copying can lead to more and more pretension; but in many cases the pretense becomes real: the tastes we aspire to often become our own tastes. (For better or worse: this happens with whiskey, cigarettes, drugs, and sweetbreads, as well as books, with wildly variable results.) That achievement comes my imitation is true, and importantly true. But it is also true that that we need eventually to grow out of reliance on signaling. What is forgivable and even touching in the young Richard Rodriguez can be unpleasant in a mature adult.

And the child who reads with a pure enthusiasm, signaling nothing to anyone, is beautiful: thus Lewis’s defense of reading unsophisticated books. Lewis’s great predecessor in such thoughts was G. K. Chesterton, in his defense of the “penny dreadfuls” so popular in the late Victorian world. “There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum.” Chesterton is perfectly happy to acknowledge that these books are not in the commendatory sense “literature,” because “the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac.”

While I agree with Harold Bloom about many things, and am thankful for his long advocacy for the greatest of stories and poems, in these matters I am firmly on the side of Lewis and Chesterton. Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you’re 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. 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 assessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is 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.

It’s noteworthy that what someone like the young Richard Rodriguez thought of as true and high seriousness—reading masterpieces and masterpieces only—Auden sees as “frivolous.” This is not so paradoxical as it seems. What’s frivolous is not the masterpiece itself, but the idea that at any given time I the reader am prepared to meet its standards, to rise to its challenges. Those challenges wear heavily upon the unprepared reader (at age ten or twenty or sixty) and as a result the reading, which in anticipation promised such riches of meaning, proves in fact to be that dread appointment with the elliptical trainer I mentioned earlier. And who needs that?

At the end of his memoir Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, Walter Kirn recalls a time when, as a recent graduate of Princeton, he read a book. All his life he had read only to impress others, primarily his teachers: he had been a kind of cynical Doppelgänger of Richard Rodriguez, seeing reading only as an instrument by which some other kind of good might be achieved. (“I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I’d reached myself. …What was learning but a form of borrowing? And what was intelligence but borrowing slyly?”) But having succeeded at this game, he discerns its emptiness, and the unraveling of all his ambitions leads to a near-complete breakdown: “My education was running in reverse as my mind shed its outermost layer of signs and symbols and shrank back to its dumb, preliterate state.” But it’s at this moment, with no one ordering him or expecting him to do any such thing, he inexplicably picks up and decides to read The Adventures of Huckeberry Finn. Then he moves on to Great Expectations.

And so, belatedly, haltingly, accidentally, and quite implausibly and incredibly, it began at last: my education. I wasn’t sure what it would get me, whose approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete (forever, I had an inkling), but for once those weren’t my first concerns. Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.
I wanted to find out what others thought.

For the first time in his life, Walter Kirn was reading at whim.
And it’s never too late to begin this new life as a free reader. Not long after Kirn’s book came out, Cathleen Schine wrote a wonderful essay for the New York Times about being a “teenage illiterate” — that is, having been turned off reading, especially literary reading, as a teenager and coming back to it only as an adult. At one point, frustrated with her inability to find books she liked and to stick with them, “I remembered a bag in the closet with stuff my ex-boyfriend had left behind, including a paperback copy of Our Mutual Friend, his favorite novel. A few days later I emerged from that exquisite book and cursed myself for wasting so much of my life doing things other than what God in all his wisdom clearly meant for me to do for the rest of my life: read Dickens.” For Schine this discovery “was a defining moment,” and “it could never have happened if I had not been blessedly illiterate.”

That is to say, she came upon a world of wonderful books when she was ready for them—when she could receive what they have to offer. “I got to read Huckleberry Finn for the first time when I was 35 years old. I read My Antonia for the first time last month. That is a kind of grace. If …I had read Huckleberry Finn at 14, would I have re-read it at 35? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been the same transcendent experience as discovering it as an adult.”

So the books are waiting. Of this you may be confident: they’ll be ready when the whim strikes you.