Imagine this scenario: someone writes a book called Why Don’t People Read Anymore?
That was supposed to be a joke.
Actually, NPR published an April Fools’ Day article called “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” earlier this year. Many people didn’t actually click on the article, instead posting angry comments below it–“I do too read!”–before NPR revealed the prank. The real question, as Jay Hathaway later observed, isn’t why we don’t read. It’s why we comment when we’ve only read a headline.
It was a walk through a bookstore earlier today that got me into this train of thought. There were lots of books on reading–how to read literature like a professor, etc. The bad thing is that I’ve known professors who probably never read anything worthwhile. If you have to read like a professor, don’t read like those professors.
Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College, doesn’t think you should read like a professor, either. In fact, he says, he began to lose his ability to read for pleasure because he was so used to scanning what he read for important information. His book is The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It is a mostly pleasurable read, fortunately.
Jacobs takes on people who argue that you should read what is “good for you.” That, he says, is precisely what you should not do. If you only read what’s good for you, regardless of whether it interests you and even whether you can understand it, then you’ll lose the ability to read for pleasure. (You also may not understand what the book in question is talking about. In sum–you’re wasting your time.)
Yet Jacobs also suggests reading upward. What he means by that is, if you like The Lord of the Rings, try reading Beowulf. Don’t read downward, to cheap fantasies that have none of Tolkien’s power. Read for pleasure! Poorly written stuff simply isn’t as rewarding. And if you like Jane Austen, read other novelists of her era. Don’t read downward to all the Jane Austen “sequels.” They aren’t nearly as pleasurable as Austen. If you turn to them out of a love for Austen, you’re cheating yourself.
Above all, enjoy your reading time. Jacobs apparently considers lying about what you have read a lesser evil than never reading anything for pleasure. Personally, I’d rather know someone who forced themself through Plato’s Republic to no benefit than someone who would prefers seeming intelligent to being honest. A comment like that makes me wonder whether Jacobs has ever known a pathological liar. Short version–it makes you hate lying.
So read upward–for pleasure. And if admitting that you read for pleasure embarrasses you in front of your friends, ditch the friends.