Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Notes: January 8-14(A)

Alan Jacobs is one of my favorite American writers.  His biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian, is a thorough delight, and his exploration of the curse of Adam, Original Sin: A Cultural History, is as engaging as it is informative. When I saw this latest book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I ordered it immediately, without really reading to see what it was about.  Alan Jacobs writing about reading?  My cup runneth over! 

Let's see:  I found this slender volume a quick and enjoyable enough read; but, I do not think that it was written for me.  It really is about reading in this age of manifold distractions; but, I do not have that problem.  In fact, I am sure my husband would say that he wishes I were more able to be distracted from reading.  In the chapter, "Quiet, Please," Mr. Jacobs writes about the trials of the intellectually ambitious lower classes in England who wished to better themselves through books, and how difficult it was even to find a quiet space to absorb the written word.  Mr. Jacobs quotes as follows: So many [scholarship boys from poor families] learned the early habit of working with the wireless on and the family talking, of building a cone of silence around themselves. I could completely relate to that.  My cones of silence are wide and tall and virtually soundproof when I'm lost in a good book.  So, a distracted reader I am not.

Mr. Jacobs is also adamant that our reading choices not be directed by prescript Lists and Authorities that tell us what we must read to be cultured, intelligent, and whole.  He stresses the direction of Whim -- our internal resonance with the materials that fill our soul -- over that of Authority.  Very well and good.  I read almost exclusively by Whim; however, I keep revisiting books and genres that I think I ought to like or at least be familiar with, even though they drive me nuts (I'm thinking here mostly of that ponderous and portentous collection of pressed wood pulp that is Russian Literature*).  Ought I to give these trials and forays up once and for all, Mr. Jacobs?  Not so fast.  He later writes about the need to continually revisit books you could not at first get a handle of until you have that lightbulb-over-the-head moment and get them.  I shudder that he used as an example of such readerly tenacity his struggle over the years to appreciate the great G.K. Chesterton.  How could anyone have to force themselves to read Gilbert Keith?  Especially someone who loves C.S. Lewis as much as Mr. Jacobs obviously does?  I cannot dwell upon that without getting a wee bit depressed, so I'll trot along to the happy conclusion that, all of a sudden, while re-reading The Man Who Was Thursday, Mr. Jacobs got it.  Well, at least sort of.  So, I guess I cannot justify throwing Fyodor, Leo, and Boris into the recycling bin quite yet.  Though I want to.  Only like all the time.

Speaking of recycling bin, I was a little sad that Mr. Jacobs's effusions on the pleasures of reading did not include the pleasures of reading book books.  He seems a devotee of Kindle, and he also seems to spend a lot of reading time looking at other various screens.  One of the great pleasures of reading is the physical book, I think.  Not that I haven't waxed rhapsodic on this enough, but I just want to state once more for the record that nothing, nothing could ever replace for me the pleasure of holding a physical book.  The position of my hands when I read is one of comfort and joy, and not one that I can duplicate with one hand behind a screen and the other on the page-forward button.

There are some funny parts where Mr. Jacobs quotes Harold Bloom (disapprovingly, yet lovingly) as that eminent critic gleefully bashes the Harry Potter phenomenon.  And there is some very good stuff about engaging with books through marginalia.  The chapter, "Judge, Jury, and Executioner," was convicting to me, because I have nothing but absolute confidence in my own ability to judge and make pronouncements about what books are worthy, and Mr. Jacobs seems to imply that I ought not be so full of myself.  He also wants me to slow down when I read; but, I do not see that happening.  I savor what needs savoring (and mark what needs revisiting), but whole works are seldom so full of the tasty bits.

So, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, was not a book written for me.  And it is not the book I was expecting it to be, but that is not the author's fault.  What I was really hoping for was the kind of book that leads me to want to read what the author loves.  I wanted to know what this very good and thoughtful writer, Alan Jacobs, reads that transports him beyond the wily fingers of distraction.  But, I did not get a sense of that at all.  In fact, he seemed almost hesitant to write about the books that fulfill his Whim, lest he shuffle unwittingly in the realm of Authority.  Maybe it is because I am older than the college students who often seek his guidance, but I do not think he could unduly influence me.  I just want to read about what he likes to read, and then, maybe, find someone whose work I had not heard of or yet considered.  That's all.

*This does not include Chekhov, to whom I am devoted. 

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