I’ve been writing about reading. No surprises there, I suppose. My wife recently introduced me to BookRiot, and I wish I had more time to spend there. A recent post by Aisling Twomey describes how reading on her Tube commute helps keep her sane. Here is a good case of convergent evolution—I came to the same conclusion after about a week of what turns out to be about three hours a day commuting to New York City. We didn’t move to my current location to work in Manhattan. My job was in nearby Piscataway. It was only when a headhunter found me a job at Routledge that I began the daily trip. The problem is I get terribly car sick. To this day I can’t read in a car. Some days I can’t read on the bus either. Gradually, however, I trained myself to do it, and the results have been worth it. Ms. Twomey has read over fifty books this year on her London commute. I suspect my commute is a bit longer since I’ve read a few more than that. Still, we tilt against the same windmill, so we need to appreciate the dedication it takes.
I was talking to someone the other day who was complaining about cell phones. She said, “I used to read a lot. I worked in a book store. It was great.” Her cell, she said, gave her a stiff neck from constantly looking down. And a sore thumb from swiping and texting. And yet, she lamented, she just couldn’t stop. Books may well be a vice. I’m as bad as any addict. I have no idea how many books I’ve read in my life: the number is in the thousands rather than the hundreds, I know. And even the books I regret, I don’t really regret. Reading is a coping mechanism.
One of the things that the traditional ancient religions all have in common is books. Not all of them treat sacred texts the same way, but they all have some form of sacred writing. There was an implicit sense, I believe, from the first stylus on clay, that something truly special was going on here. Holy, even. Writing is one of the great joys of life. Reading is another. Both are sacred professions. In a way it seems a shame to have to be forced into a commute in order to find time to read books. Still, the constant flow of new material has a life-saving quality to it. I can’t imagine spending fifteen concentrated hours a week texting. I don’t know that many people to text. The ones I do know I know through their books. And they’re very good company on a long ride.
Reading is fundamental. Those of us who grew up hearing that slogan have never forgotten it. The part that I wish had stuck better is just a touch shorter: reading is fun. Or it can be. Should be. Alan Jacobs’ little book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is like an extended essay on the subject. As a professor of literature, Jacobs has considerable experience encouraging people to read, and in his book he makes a case for reading what you want to read (reading on a Whim, he calls it). Wisely he recognizes that many would-be readers are discouraged by being instructed to read that which they don’t find appealing. I learned quite a lot from the suggestions contained herein, and I’ve been reading so long that I thought I knew pretty much what I needed to know about it. Perhaps the most fundamental issue (apart from reading itself) is that many of us expect to be told what to read. We second-guess our own judgment, feeling we need an expert to tell us how to do it. Like singing in public, it’s intimidating to come across someone better read than oneself. Jacobs advocates reading what gives you pleasure and not worrying about what others think.
Recognizing that readers are spoiled for choice, Jacobs addresses, among other topics, rereading. And taking notes. And reading slowly. I recall speed-reading courses advertised, ironically, on television. At college you could take courses in improving your quota of pages turned. There is a specific kind of reading, as Jacobs notes—reading for information—where this may be helpful. This is different than reading for pleasure, or even reading for understanding. In the case of the Bible (Jacobs taught at Wheaton before moving on to Baylor) many people, he suggests, read for information rather than for understanding. When reading for pleasure taking your time is a virtue. Getting to know a book requires rereading. We need to make time for what is important.
Jacobs makes the point that readers are a minority sect. There have always been fewer of us than there have been of those who don’t read. We are, in his words, a tribe. We can generally spot one another. Those of us who can’t walk past a bookstore will recognize ourselves in the pages of this meditation. Those who spend long hours with books become like them, in some respects. Familiar, layered, and requiring more and more attention. Like the reading that it advocates, this book itself is a delight to read. There is so much in this brief volume that it’s difficult to summarize in the short-form writing that I use on this blog. I found myself wishing for an index so that I might find my favorite passages again. Then I realized that perhaps this absence was intentional. Maybe I’ll have to reread it, taking notes as I go. What a wonderful thought.