The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. Oxford University Press, 2011. 176pp.
Lit! by Tony Reinke. Crossway, 2011. 206pp.
Read a book about reading books and you've jumped down a sort of rabbit hole that only deepens when the author of the book about reading quotes other books on reading. So imagine being the one who writes about these books? The mind boggles.
But I'd like to introduce you to two books of the genre just the same. In a twin genre to this—books by writers about writing—there are two types: the first is philosophical and poetic and captures the struggle and joy of being a writer (think Annie Dillard's The Writing Life); the other is the put-your-butt-in-the-seat-and-start-writing genre, practical and sometimes gritty and occasionally with a few bad words (think Stephen King's On Writing or Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird). The philosophical books are for those who already write, who will recognize, with pleasure, the shared writing life. The others are for those who "want to write" (or, worse, "want to be a writer") and need someone to say: well then, you must write.
Books about reading, as it turns out, fall into the same general breakdown. Lit! is clearly a book of the second sort, for those who "want to read." It is written simply; in fifteen straightforward chapters, the book makes the theological case to reluctant readers for the act of reading, and then gives extremely practical suggestions for how to actually go about the work of reading.
In the first half, Reinke tackles the job of defending reading—of the Bible and of Christian books, but also of work by non-Christians—on a theological basis. Written language is important, he says, because it is one of the major ways in which God chooses to reveal himself to us, and yet we (and, by extension, our rational faculties) are fallen and need the illumination of the Holy Spirit—even, and especially, when we are reading.
Throughout his book, Reinke continually underlines the importance of first engaging with the Bible then other books for a variety of reasons: to grow in faith, to learn about God, to become wise, to understand the world, to grow one's imagination. He gives practical advice in building and prioritizing a book list, reading well, engaging in fiction and nonfiction, resisting technological temptations, marking up books, having a reading group, and encouraging the love of reading in children and our churches. He weaves in his personal story, helping encourage the reluctant reader to give it a shot. (In doing this, it become increasingly clear that this is primarily—and probably rightly—a book aimed at busy businessmen and fathers; Reinke spends a few paragraphs in the middle encouraging women to "also" read theology, since fewer women read theology, but when he later admonishes pastors to build in their congregations a love of reading, his emphasis is on mentoring men in this direction.)
Of course, the problem with Lit! is not its own fault. The truth is that the reluctant adult reader is probably not going to pick up a book about reading. And if he does, it may have an unintended effect, for a simple reason: The difference between reluctant student readers and reluctant adult readers is that, unlike students, adults aren't usually compelled to read by others, such as teachers. These would-be readers feel more like they're skipping the gym again when they flick on the TV instead of picking up a book. They know reading is good for them, but they just can't bring themselves to do it, and so this book only causes them to feel even more guilty for not reading, but it's hard, after a long day.
Reinke does an admirable job of building the case even to that reader that they do have the time to read—they're just not taking advantage of it—and his own love of reading is apparent on every page. But his cheerful chapters could still come across, at times, like an extra heap of duty to the reluctant reader. Prioritize your reading list! Read Puritan theologians! Mark them up properly! And we all know how easy it is to lead the horse to water.
For this reason, Lit! will work best as a book for a pastor or mentor to give to a reluctant reader, encouraging them to read it and then check back with them. Or for the reluctant reader to take on a plane flight, thereby removing (at least in some cases) the distraction of the television or internet. It is not, however, a book for those who already feel burdened by their long list of books to read, those bowed down by the weight of their ambitions. If you are one of those: read on.
If I were to offer suggestions to the reader of Lit!, I might also tell them these things, which I wish had been addressed by Reinke as I feel they are an absolutely essential part of reading for the Christian. First, reading books about people unlike yourself is not a thing you ought to do because it inspires you or teaches you wisdom, but because it builds in you compassion for others.
And I would encourage the reader to pay attention not just to content, imagination, inspiration, and information, but to craft: to the words themselves, and how they are shaped. There is delight to be found in language itself, delight that derives once again from the great created thing that is written language. And furthermore, sometimes a book with great content can be made weaker by poor writing, and sometimes a book with weak content can be made digestible or even seductive with fine writing: caveat lector.
Interestingly, in Reinke's list of reading priorities (which include things like spiritual development and vocational excellence), it is not until the sixth and final priority that we see that we can read to enjoy a good story. Here he quotes Alan Jacobs's new book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Jacobs's entire thesis is that reading ought to be primarily for pleasure, and it's a book about reading of the first sort I mentioned above. In fact, Jacobs points this out explicitly in his epigraph:
Caveat lector—Those who have always disliked reading, or who have been left indifferent by it, may find little of interest here. But those who have caught a glimpse of what reading can give—pleasure, wisdom, joy—even if that glimpse came long ago, are the audience for whom this book was written.
Reader, beware: This little book is not really for the too-busy-to-read type. It's a sort of long musing essay (by one of the living masters of the form) on the pleasures of reading, especially in an age of distraction, by which Jacobs means the manic web-channel surfing we all do every day, and which you've probably done half a dozen times since you started reading this article (and which, let's be honest, I've done since sitting down to write it).
Jacobs, the widely published Wheaton professor of English, is of course very widely read, and even after all these years he finds reading delightful. His own story of reading is also woven in throughout the essay, which meanders through research and stories from literary history through intensely contemporary concerns and a whole lot more. Jacobs is an accessible and insightful writer, but he's also friendly. You wouldn't accuse him of using simple language, but he's not hard to understand. It's like a very long conversation with your favourite professor about reading.
Jacobs encourages his reader read for "whim"—for pleasure, for joy, even for "entertainment," the vaguely pejorative word Mortimer Adler uses in his classic How to Read a Book for types of reading that aren't for information or understanding. Jacobs reminds us that reading, when done simply or even primarily for those two reasons, is a serious bummer:
So this is 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 Middlemarch 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."
One other thing Jacobs does that, frankly, delights me: he is a master of the lengthy and amusing footnote, not just to cite sources but to add asides to an already meandering form. I'm in the midst of a David Foster Wallace book where the footnotes are sometimes a page and a half long and screamingly funny; although Jacobs, as far as I can find, never goes past two-thirds of a page for a footnote, it's still exactly right, given his emphasis on whim and serendipity.
Distraction, especially as perpetrated by the big bad internet, is the major problem for the reader of our day, and Jacobs explores it, but with a slightly different conclusion than Reinke. Both authors encourage the reader to train herself to read without interruption, and warn that it's a lengthy but rewarding process. Yet they disagree on one much-debated technology: the e-reader. Both found that the device changed their reading patterns, but while Reinke put his away when he was dissatisfied with his reading, Jacobs loves his, and goes on at some length about the fact.
That single item does in fact sum up what is true of books about reading, and their readers, and their writers, too: reading is not a thing that, apologies to Adler, is done well by following a set of rules (and in fact, good readers do all sorts of different things). Achieving basic literacy at age five is just the start. The rules and guidelines—like those offered by Reinke—are a helpful set of training wheels for those who need to overcome their inertia and start the work of reading. But once the structures are in place, the reader must take off the training wheels and start trusting their balance and instincts for reading. A nice thick book that is good for us in theory may be the wrong thing in practice at a given time in our lives; berating ourselves for not reading enough theology when there's a baby and a two-year-old at home or when a project at work is consuming our time and energy might be just the wrong move. Reading for whim and serendipity is then what we need. But if our reading for whim overtakes our lives, it is time to revisit the structures that helped us fall in love with the practice in the first place. Caveat lector: reader, beware, lest you lose the love of reading.