Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Books on Book - The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

I like lists - making them, reading them, borrowing items from other people's lists - you name it, I love lists! From time to time I'll pick up a book that talks about books, and most of the time they are talking about books that were significant to the author, or maybe a recommendation engine to lead to a list that others "should" read, before they die, before they go to college, to be a true hipster, etc. I thought that is what this book would be when I picked it up. I turned out to be wrong!

Before I share the review, I thought I'd let you peruse my growing "Books on Books" shelf in GoodReads. Some of these I've read and some I have yet to read. I would love someday to write a book on books on books, but sometimes it feels like that has already been done.

Books on Books

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree
Phantoms on the Bookshelves
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book
Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere
Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life
The Stone Diaries
The End of Your Life Book Club
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
This Is Not the End of the Book
The Library Book
Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home
Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir
Why Read the Classics?
The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading
The Uncommon Reader
The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared
84, Charing Cross Road
A Novel Bookstore
So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading

Jenny's favorite books »
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not really sure I needed to read this. First of all because Professor Alan Jacobs is preaching to the choir. I love to read, and read on whims all the time, as he recommends. Second of all, he quotes heavily from 3-4 texts, two of which I've read recently (The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and the commencement address to Kenyon by DFW). However it is a short read (150 pages of text, many many big blocks of quotations, 12 pages of endnotes) and offers a perspective on why we should not read from lists, or to read classics just to cross them off the list. Unlike many traditionalist reading snobs, he isn't anti-eBook either, in fact reading eBooks may have given him back the love of reading.

Most of what I like the best, Jacobs is quoting from someone else.

"If a man is keen on reading, I think he ought to open his mind to some older man who knows him and his life, and to take his advice in the matter, and above all, to discuss with him the first books that interest him." - Rudyard Kipling

I'd like to rewrite it as:

"If a [woman] is keen on reading... [she] ought to open [her] mind to some older [person] who knows [her] and [her] life, and to take his advice in the matter... and to discuss with him... books that interest [her.]" and that's pretty much my reading journey. Hooray.

Another good gem comes from the poet L. E. Sissman:
"A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign. Since you, the reader, are that hero of modern literature, the existential loner, the smallest denominator of moral force, it behooves you to take counsel, sustenance, and solace from the writers who have been writing about you these hundred or five hundred years, to sequester yourself with their books and read and reread them...."

I liked the thoughts on rereading. I am always struggling to balance all the new books I want to read with the feeling of wanting to revisit some books... Gravity's Rainbow, Ulysses (already, yes, I know), Dickens, etc., etc.

The author quotes most extensively from the poet W. H. Auden; surely this must be one of his specialties or something. Regardless, I love this little bit about the five reactions to something a reader encounters:
"I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don't like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don't like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don't like it."

Perhaps I'll renumber my rating system this way, although there isn't really room for ambivalence here.

Jacobs talks about the desire to read MORE, to read FASTER, and why this might not be such a good thing. I'm not sure I agree. Probably because I get criticized for reading too much all of the time. And, after all, I'm always feeling like there is not going to be enough time for all the reading I want to do!

More than anything, I'm going to use the annotated bibliography for this book, to add to my list of books to read. Okay, it is possible that I did not exactly take his message to heart, which might be decidedly anti-list.

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