The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

I have found someone I would like to take out to dinner and talk to about book discussions.  His name is Alan Jacobs and he is a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois.  He is the author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Although this book only speaks directly to the topic of book discussions on a few pages towards the end, the entire book is about why and how people choose to read.

Or choose not to.

Book discussion leaders can learn from Jacob’s displeasure with list makers, especially Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book and its sequel by Charles Van Doren.  Jacob’s point is that reading to better oneself, reading a book from a bucket list just to check it off, or reading just to upload information takes some of the joy out of reading.  “The motviating power of competition in reading is lamentably significant,” Jacob says (p. 71). 

Equally important, Jacob believes “that most people read quickly because they want not to read but to have read…they conceive of reading simply as a means of uploading information to their brains.” (p. 72)

Book discussion leaders should know that if the fun of being in a book discussion group is overshadowed by the pressure to perform, as if the discussion were a test, members of the group are going to be stressed by the process and forget to loose themselves in the book. 

What is needed is some whim.  “We operate under the sign of Whim.  We read what we want, when we want, and there is no one to assign or to evaluate.  We are free readers.”  (p.73)

Can free readers still enjoy a book discussion if the premise is that someone is going to be asking questions?  I think so.  I think the goal of a great book discussion is to explore the book without spoiling the enjoyment of reading.  The objectives then become to ask non-threatening questions, to eliminate any tendency to make it an academic exercise and to remember that there are very few wrong answers in a book discussion.

Part of the fun of reading Jacobs’s book are the quotes he layers throughout.  Readers advisory librarians will love this quote from Rudyard Kipling:  One can’t prescribe books, even the best books, to people unless one knows a good deal about each individual person.” (p. 14)  You better laugh out loud at this quoted headline from the Onion:  Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.  (p, 56)

The thesis of the book deals with the distractions to reading and it may be fair to list book discussions as one of them.  The best reading is done in solitary where the text can be both enjoyed and absorbed.  A book discussion takes a reader away from their time to read.  But in this age where social media is the rage, I think sitting around a circle making eye contact with fellow travelers, recounting the journey of the text and what was learn, still has great value. 

I do not want to make this an assignment to upload information into your brain, but read The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and let us discuss it.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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