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February 24, 2020 Last updated: April 8, 2020

Podcast #587: How to Get More Pleasure and Fulfillment Out of Your Reading

Do you have a goal of reading more, but any time you start working on that goal, it feels like a chore? The equivalent of eating your broccoli?

My guest today argues that the problem is likely due to the fact that you’re trying to read what you think you should be reading, instead of reading what you actually enjoy. 

His name is Alan Jacobs. He’s a professor of literature and the author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. At the start of our conversation Alan offers a critique of a certain approach to reading the so-called “Great Books,” and makes an argument for choosing what you read based on Whim, with a capital W, rather than following any kind of list. He then makes the case for following that Whim into reading not only the books of your favorite authors, but the books your favorite authors read, which can actually lead you back to the Great Books, but in a way that will allow you to enjoy and appreciate them more. Alan makes the case as well for the value of re-reading books. Alan and I then discuss tactics to get more out of reading in our age of distraction, including his opinion on reading ebooks versus paper copies. We also get into his take on speed reading and whether it’s okay to not finish books you’re not digging. We end our conversation with what parents can do to raise eager readers. 

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • Alan’s beef with legendary critics Mortimer Adler and Harold Bloom
  • Why you need to sometimes read Harry Potter instead of Shakespeare
  • Reading at “Whim” 
  • Reading “upstream” of your favorite authors 
  • Why re-reading is always worth it 
  • Naturally arriving at the Great Books rather than forcing it 
  • Why masterpieces aren’t necessarily supposed to be read daily
  • CS Lewis’s advice on reading (and re-reading) 
  • The value of bookstores and libraries 
  • What happens if all you seem to enjoy are the “cheap calories” of books? 
  • Reading in our age of distraction
  • Is there a difference between reading ebooks and paper books?
  • On marginalia 
  • Different kinds of reading for different types of books 
  • On not finishing books 
  • Raising kids who enjoy reading and books 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay:

Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. You have a goal of reading more? But anytime you start working on that goal, it feels like a chore, the equivalent of eating your broccoli. My guest today argues that the problem is likely due to the fact that you’re trying to read books you think you should be reading instead of reading what you actually enjoy.

His name is Alan Jacobs. He’s a professor of literature and the author of the Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. At the start of our conversation, Alan offers critique of a certain approach to reading the so-called great books. He makes an argument for choosing what you read based on whim with a capital W rather than following any kind of list. He then makes the case for falling into that whim and to reading not only books of your favorite authors, but the books your favorite authors read, which can actually lead you back to the great books, but in a way that allows you to enjoy and appreciate them more.

Alan makes the case as well for the value of rereading books. Alan then discuss tactics to get more out of your reading in our age of distraction, including his opinion on reading eBooks versus paper copies. We also get into his take on speed reading and whether it’s okay not to finish book you’re not digging. We end our conversation with what parents can do to raise eager readers. As the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/pleasuresofreading.

Alan Jacobs, welcome to the show.

Alan Jacobs:

Thanks for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay:

So, you’ve written a lot of books. The book I read was about reading, the Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. And you start off the book and you go after a guy who’s had a big influence on reading in America. His name is Mortimer Adler. For those who aren’t familiar with Mortimer, who was he and what’s your beef with Morty and his idea about reading?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. Well first of all, let me say, Mortimer Adler was a great man in a lot of ways, but there’s some downsides. So, a little bit of the background might actually be useful just in the sense that he was a child of Jewish immigrants from Germany, went to Columbia University, sort of discovered this whole world of culture that he didn’t know anything about before and became a kind of an evangelist for the great books. Went to the University of Chicago, worked with Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was the president there, transformed that whole university. He was incredibly energetic and dynamic but his cause was the great books.

He wrote a book called Aristotle For Everybody. He wanted everyone to be able to read those books. And in that time in American history when tiny, tiny percentage of people went to university, it was a great sell. He wrote a book called How to Read a Book and the subtitle of the first edition was something along the lines of, how to get a liberal education. And the idea is that you don’t have to be able to go to university. You don’t have to go to the University of Chicago. You can be a great reader of great books.

And the problem I have with that, I mean it’s great. As far as it goes, it’s great. But the problem I have with that is that Adler didn’t really recognize any other way to read a book except to read a great book and to give it your full attention and to underline and annotate. And the whole thing was so strenuous. And I think it really did get a lot of people interested in reading great books, but it also wore a lot of people out. They just got exhausted from the demands that he was placing on them. And I think for some people, that’s counterproductive. For many people, that’s counterproductive.

Brett McKay:

And you also criticize literary critic, Harold Bloom for similar reasons.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, I mean, Bloom had the same, why are you wasting your time on Harry Potter when you could be reading Shakespeare. And hey, I’ve taught literature for most of my life and I probably wouldn’t have a job if we didn’t read Shakespeare. But you don’t read Shakespeare every single day and you certainly don’t read the tragedies every single day. Those are incredibly demanding for the same reason you don’t every night sit down and watch an Ingmar Bergman movie or 12 Years of Slave or something like that. You have to be able to give yourself a break from the demands of really great works of art.

Great works of art ask a lot of us and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can rise to that occasion every single day. So, sometimes you ought to be reading Harry Potter instead of reading Shakespeare because you need a break. And I think both Bloom and Adler were reluctant to acknowledge that.

Brett McKay:

So, I mean, I guess one of the big critiques that you had with these guys were, was like, can you read these specific books and your response, “Okay, that’s fine. Those are great books. We all recognize that the Iliad is an amazing book. It’s a great book. I love it.” But you’re saying like, well, that could also just sort of hamstring people. People might just be like, “Ah, I just, I can’t do this. I don’t want to …” Or it sort of limits your reading where you feel you hit the plow through these things and you’re not really getting anything out of it.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. All of those things are true, right? I mean, on the one hand it turns reading into kind of eating your broccoli. That I’ve got to make sure that I’m eating healthily and I’ve got to make sure that I’m reading healthily. And okay, but where’s the pleasure in that? And my book is called the Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. And one of the things I want to emphasize is that it’s really okay to read things that are for fun because if you’re only reading in order to eat your intellectual broccoli, that’s going to wear on you.

And after a while, you’re going to say, “Ah, who needs that?” And I think that’s often how people lose the habit of reading. They lose the habit of reading because they make it so strenuous and so demanding. And they don’t want to read anything that’s not great. And then it just becomes exhausting. And after a while, they’re like, “Yeah, well, maybe I’ll just watch some Netflix or something,” because they’re just worn out by the stress of it all.

Brett McKay:

Well so, instead of just going through list, your advice to readers is to read at whim.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

And then you make a distinction between lowercase whim and uppercase Whim.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

What’s going on there?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. So, I got this from the poet Randall Jarrell, who ended an essay that way, read at Whim. And Whim with capital W, W-H-I-M is a kind of a principle or a policy. Let me tell you how I came onto this. What would happen is that year after year after year, so I’ve been a college university teacher for 35 years now and I would have students who would come to my office and they would say, “I’m about to graduate, but there’s so many great things I haven’t read yet. Give me a list of things to read. Give me a list of books that every educated person should have read.” And they’re coming in with their notebooks and they’ve got their pins poised over the notebook. Like, “Give me these things.”

And I would think you’re just finishing up four years of school, give yourself a break. You don’t have to do this now. You don’t have to read according to an assignment or according to a list of approved texts. Enjoy your freedom. Go out there and follow your whim. And by that, I mean follow that which really draws your spirit and your soul and see where that takes you. If it turns out that you spend a year reading Stephen King novels or something like that, that’s totally fine. That’s not a problem. Read your Stephen King novels, but there are also really good novels.

But whatever it happens to be, if you’re reading young adult fiction for a year, read young adult fiction for a year. After a while, you probably got to have enough of that. But don’t go around making your reading life a kind of means of authenticating yourself as a serious person. It’s just no way to live. So, I would always tell them, “Give yourself a break. Don’t make a list. See where Whim takes you.”

Brett McKay:

And so, this capitol Whim, I mean, I think there seems to be like whim, people think whim, there’s things sort of randomness.

Alan Jacobs:

Right.

Brett McKay:

But it sounds like the Whim that you’re describing is it’s random but also structured at the same time in a way.

Alan Jacobs:

Well, what happens is that there is a kind of an emergent structure in a way, things emerge. So, here’s one of the things that I will tell people. I’ll say, “Let’s say you really love Tolkien and you’ve read Lord of the Rings like 10 times and you’re not sure you want to read the Lord of the Rings again.” First of all, I will say, “Rereading is always a good idea. It’s always a good idea. But there may be times when you think, yeah, maybe I don’t need an 11th reading of the Lord of the Rings.”

And so, I’ll say, “Well then, let’s move upstream a little bit. Why don’t you ask yourself what did Tolkien read? What did he love? If you love Tolkien’s writing, what writing did Tolkien love and kind of go upstream of him and find out what he read.” And in that way, you’re doing something that is really substantial. I mean, learning about some new things, some important things, things that are really valuable, but you’re also kind of following whatever it is in your spirit that responded to Lord of the Rings. You’re taking it to that next level.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. We do this series on the site called the Libraries of Famous Men where we take some great person from history. It could be like we’ve done Bruce Lee. We’ve done Ernest Hemingway. We’ve done Theodore Roosevelt. And we look at their libraries and the books that they read. Because I think there’s a quote I read somewhere. It’s like if you really want to find out about someone you look up to, don’t read what they wrote, read what they read because that’s what shaped them.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, exactly. That’s the idea. And it is something in which it’s not a dry scholarly exercise. You’re being drawn by something you love. You’re being drawn by something that has really spoken to your heart and you’re moving through that and on to a much broader terrain.

And so, it’s a way to expand your reading and grow and deepen your mind, but without that sense of duty of just marking things off of list. The problem with that is I think when you’re marking things off a list, that’s not really a sign that you want to read something. That’s a sign that you want to have read something or you want to be able to say you have read something. And if that’s all that matters, then hey, just go and read the Wikipedia’s plot summary. Save yourself some time.

Brett McKay:

Well, and the other thing about this upstream tactic of expanding your reading, so say like you do like Tolkien and you start reading what he read. Like eventually, you’re going to and probably end up to one of those great books.

Alan Jacobs:

Absolutely. It’s going to take you there. But the difference is you’re not reading it because this is something on my list and I don’t feel like I’m a really educated person if I haven’t read this book. Instead you’re reading it because your Whim, with that capital W, has taken you there. And so, that way it’s more integrated with who you really are as a person and what you really love. And it’s less about how you want to present yourself to other people.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. So, I’ve done this before, this going upstream, but in a different way. So, my favorite novel of all time, I said this before on the podcast lots of times is Larry McMurtry’s lonesome dove.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

And then I started reading his like … I’ve read that thing like five times, but then I was like, I’ve got to read the prequels. I started reading like a Dead Man’s Walk and a Comanche Moon. And then I started learning about that. I was like, “These Comanche Indians, I didn’t know about this.” And so, I was like, I went on Amazon and just searched books about Comanche Indians and that’s how I discovered Empire of the Summer Moon, fantastic book. It was some of the best books I’ve read.

Alan Jacobs:

Right. But you wouldn’t have discovered it if you hadn’t been actually reading at Whim. You were not thinking, “Oh, let me see, I’ve read this Larry McMurtry book, now I need to read all the other books that were well-reviewed that year.” Instead you were following up something that was really drawing you on. In a way, you’re just obeying your own curiosity and that’s a much better guide to reading than having a list that somebody else has given you.

Brett McKay:

So, we’ve talked about Harold Bloom, how he’s very stringent about his idea of what reading should look like. But in your book, you talk about other literary giants who kind of agreed with your advice about reading at Whim.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. My favorite writer and the writer that I’ve come back to more than any other over the years is the poet, W.H. Auden. And he actually, I think, I was reading an essay of his that kind of set me off down this path because he says in one of his essays that masterpieces, great masterpieces are for the high holy days of the spirit. They’re not for everyday, in exactly the same way that you would not eat a seven course French meal every night. You don’t read a great masterpiece every day. You save it for those times when you are kind of morally and spiritually and emotionally prepared for it. And that was really the thing that set me off down this little path.

Brett McKay:

And then another person you’ve written about a lot, wrote a biography about him, C.S. Lewis had this very idea of kind of whim, following your whim where it takes you.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, exactly. And the way that that often expressed itself in Lewis is following the desire to reread something. All of his favorite books he read over and over and over again. And in fact, he felt so strongly the love of rereading that he would say, “Sometimes I have to ration myself and not allow myself another rereading yet. I got to wait a few more months before I can reread this again.” And Lewis felt that it was …I mean, Lewis was incredibly widely read, but for someone who read as widely as he did, it’s surprising how often he emphasized the value of returning over and over again to the same books if those books are ones that really nourish your heart and soul.

Brett McKay:

And one of the things that sort of inadvertent consequences of like book list is that it discourages rereading. People are like, “Well, I don’t have time to reread it. I got to get to the next one here.”

Alan Jacobs:

Exactly. And again, that’s wanting to have read, that’s wanting not to read, but to have read. And you can say, “Look, here’s the list. Here’s how many books I read in 2019.” And okay, but maybe, maybe if instead of reading 123 books in 2019, what if you had read seven books but you read each of them three times, you might actually be way better off. If you chose those books, well you might actually have had a more intellectually nourishing year than you’re reading your 123 books.

I think when people get locked into that, I try to gently suggest, I mean when I say locked in, locked in to that idea of getting through a certain number of books. That’s a terrible phrase if you love reading by the way, getting through. I don’t want to get through it. I want to enjoy it, I want to relish it. But if you’re thinking in terms of getting through books, I will gently suggest, maybe you should reconsider your life choices of yet. What are you chasing? What is it that’s flogging you? Something is driving you in a way that doesn’t seem altogether healthy to me.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. I mean, so I read that many books, but it’s because it’s my job, right?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

To prepare for the podcast. So, I mean, I have to crank through like a book, two books a week, but then I also have like my pleasure reading that I do. And it’s not that many. And I don’t know. So yeah, whenever I tell … I always post like, “Hey, I read this many books, here are my favorites.” People are like, “How do you do it?” It’s like, well, it’s my job. You wouldn’t ask a plumber, like, how do you fix 120 toilets in a year?

Alan Jacobs:

Right.

Brett McKay:

So, that’s my job, man.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, yeah. Same thing for me, right? As a teacher, I’m teaching classes right now that I’ve never taught before. Some of the stuff I’ve read before, some of the stuff I haven’t. But those kinds of demands are my job and your job are kind of interesting in this regard because we can’t just read it to get through it. We have to read it well enough that we can talk to other people about it and not make fools of ourselves, you know?

Brett McKay:

Right.

Alan Jacobs:

So, that’s a bit of pressure on us, but that’s not bad pressure. I mean, it kind of forces you to be attentive in ways that ultimately make reading that book more rewarding than it would be if you were just trying to get from the first page to the last page as fast as you can.

Brett McKay:

So, one idea I came across, I don’t know where I saw it at, but I really liked the idea about rereading books is someone talked about creating a liturgical calendar for your reading. So, there’s like certain seasons like during the winter, you’re going to read this book or during the fall, you’re going to read … I really like that idea.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, it’s interesting. I think I’m not sure that’s whimmy enough for me. You know what I mean? What if I don’t feel like doing it then? What if I feel like doing something else? But I’m willing to give in on that just a little bit simply because the value of rereading is so rarely acknowledged that anytime people are acknowledging that, I’m 100% in favor.

Brett McKay:

Well, what do you think the value of rereading is?

Alan Jacobs:

Well, there’s a lot. I mean, first of all, if it’s a really worthwhile book and books can be worthwhile in a thousand different ways, you’re never going to get everything important out of it on a first reading. But then in addition to that, you go through different stages of life. And in those different stages of life, books speak to you in dramatically different ways.

I remember once I used to teach Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina almost every year. And one year I was reading it and I came across a passage, which totally knocked me out and I couldn’t even remember having read it before. I’d taught the book six or seven times and I had completely passed over this particular passage. And it’s a passage where one of the two protagonists, a man named Konstantin Lëvin, his wife kitty has just given birth to their first child. And he picks up his newborn son and the first thing he thinks is, now the world has so many ways to hurt me. And it’s just an incredibly powerful scene.

Why didn’t I notice it before? Because I hadn’t had children before. It was as soon as my son was born, I saw that passage in a way that it would have been irrelevant to me before because it was so disconnected from my experience. At that point I thought to myself, what’s wrong with you that you didn’t notice this? Did you have to have a child in order to understand how emotionally overwhelming it is to have a child? I guess so. So, I learned something about myself there. I learned about the things that I was paying attention to and not paying attention to.

And when I go back to books, especially books that I teach, because if it’s a book that I teach, I write a lot in the margins. And it’s really kind of funny to look at my history as a reader. I’ll look back and I’ll think that’s stupid. Why did you say that? You didn’t know what you’re talking about. I’m arguing with my earlier self. But sometimes my earlier self noticed something that I wasn’t noticing and I’m thankful for that. So, rereading a book is kind of an exercise in self-understanding as well as an exercise in a better understanding of the book.

Brett McKay:

So, another way, as you’re talking about reading about whim, one of the ways that I’ve found to inject whim to my reading is actually going into a bookstore, which is becoming less frequent because people go on Amazon and Amazon gives you these recommendations, but they’re all algorithm based. So, it seems like whim, but you know it’s like, “Okay, Amazon, Jeff Bezos has figured out like what I want to read.” So, it doesn’t feel serendipitous. But I love going into a bookstore like a Barnes and Noble or even better, like a used books store.

Alan Jacobs:

I know.

Brett McKay:

That’s the best feeling in the world.

Alan Jacobs:

Because you have no idea what you’re going to find. Yeah, and that’s the really cool thing.

Just this morning. I read an article in The Guardian of London about a bookstore in London. It’s an independent bookstore and they started offering a few years ago this service, you can call them on the phone or you can come in to the store or you can even do this online and you tell them, what are your favorite books? What are the books that are most important to you? What are the books that you’ve reread the most often? They just kind of get a little profile of you as a reader. And then what they do is you can sign up. You can subscribe for a package, and according to which package you subscribe to, they send you books in the mail and they wrap each book individually as a gift.

It’s their recommendations for you based on what you’ve told them about yourself as a reader. And you can subscribe so you get six paperbacks or you can get a dozen hardbacks or you decide what it’s going to be. But they mail them to you and they’re wrapped up as gift. So, you actually don’t know until you unwrap the little package what’s going to be in there.

And I think that’s so terrific. It’s anti-algorithm. It’s all based on people who’ve read a lot of books, who listened to you, how you describe yourself, and then make a decision for you. And this bookstore was really struggling until they started offering this particular service. And it’s just absolutely taken off. And because part of it is the personal character of it, but another part of it is you’re getting wrapped up gifts in the mail. What’s cooler than that?

Brett McKay:

People love getting stuff in the mail.

Alan Jacobs:

Oh yeah.

Brett McKay:

Okay. This idea of whim, it’s not just like read randomly. Read what gives you pleasure. I like the idea of going upstream, maybe digging into a topic. So, maybe if you read a novel but you come across a nonfiction idea, mine that, just go different direction. And also I want to be clear, I think you’re not saying like don’t read the “great books”, but you don’t have to make your diet all that all the time.

Alan Jacobs:

Right It doesn’t have to be that all the time. And then if you come to them because you’re genuinely interested in what they have to offer rather than because you’re trying to cross them off the list or if you say, you know what, I know this book is going to be a challenge. I know this book is going to be hard for me, but that’s what I want right now. I want a challenge. That’s totally great. That’s totally great.

It’s the crossing the books off the list that is the death of pleasure in reading. That’s the thing I’m most want to warn people away from.

Brett McKay:

Good. And it might be the case you’ve started enjoying reading, like the great books have become your thing. That might be your whim.

Alan Jacobs:

That’s exactly right. That may be where it takes you. And I actually think that eventually if you say, you know what I’m going to do, I’m going to take a year and I’m not going to read anything except thrillers and mystery novels or whatever your kind of genre fiction thing is, again, I think for a season in your life, that’s totally great, but I bet there’s going to be a time where you will say, you know what? I think I’ve done enough of this. I think I need something that’s a little more meaty, something I can really chew on, not just pure carbs, but something that’s more substantial.

And at that point you’ll be moving towards more challenging and more difficult books, not because you’re trying to impress somebody else, but because that’s the food you know you need. And when you do follow Whim in the right sense of the word, that’s what you do. You learn better what it is that you need as a reader. What is it that feeds your heart and your soul and your mind. And if you don’t read at Whim but you only read according to a list, you’ll never find that out. There’ll be really important things about yourself that you will never know

Brett McKay:

Okay. Speaking of great books, this sounds Platonic. Plato is all about follow love. Love will eventually lead you to the good, right?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, yeah. But of course, he also knows that there are people who don’t understand that and who will continue to try to pursue the most grossly physical. Plato wasn’t big on the physical, the most grossly physical kinds of love and they won’t rise. They won’t look for something better. And if that’s the way you are, if you find yourself over and over and over again just reading the stuff that isn’t substantive, that’s just kind of the cheap calories then maybe it’s time to step back a bit and say, why am I like that? What is it that’s preventing me from trying something that’s more challenging?

But again, that’s a product of self-reflection and that’s what Plato wants. Socrates is always pushing people towards that self-reflection. So, Whim with the capital W is actually not, as you said earlier, Brett, it’s not random. Whim is something that will lead you to self-reflection and a better understanding of who you are as a reader and who you really want to be.

Brett McKay:

Yeah, you have to know what you like and a lot of people don’t know what they like.

Alan Jacobs:

Right. That’s right. And for a lot of people, they allow their … I mean this is especially easy when you’re in a world of social media and then also algorithmic recommendations of the kinds you mentioned earlier, the algorithmic recommendations you get from Amazon especially, they don’t know what they like because they’re never pausing to think, what do I really want? Instead they’re just responding to whatever the world is putting right in front of them. And when you do that, you can kind of get out of the habit of making your own decisions and you can get out of the habit of self-knowledge.

And in that way, I think you’re on a treadmill at that point. You’re trying to catch up with all the things that other people are talking about and you’re losing your ability to form your own soul.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. And if you feel like that, you can go to a book to find answers on how to deal with that. Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emerson, like they wrote about these ideas of knowing what you like, what you love in life.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean you may think you know what self-reliance is, but if you read Emerson on self-reliance, it’s a completely different thing than most of us think self-reliance is. Yeah.

Brett McKay:

So, we’ve talked about, so this idea of make reading pleasurable again, don’t make it something that you beat yourself up with like a hair shirt you put on. So, let’s talk about this idea of reading in the age of distraction because that’s another complaint that people have is not only reading just seems like a hard thing I feel reading these books. The other thing is, well, how do I find the mental space to read when there’s so many things distracting me.

People have developed tactics or techniques that allow them to read more deeply. And one thing you talked about in your book is eBooks. What’s your take on eBooks? Do you think they help or hinder reading? Make it more distracting, better? What say you?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, so my history with that is kind of interesting in the, I was a pretty early adopter of Twitter. I got on Twitter in 2007 and really made some friends there and connect with that. I deleted Facebook the same month that I started Twitter. So, I’ve never been in the Facebook world. But with that plus just all the things that were always coming across my computer, even though I was a professor of literature, I started noticing how my attention span was shortening. It was getting worse and worse and I was more and more inclined to turn aside and to see what was happening online. And all the content farms are just recycling stuff like crazy. And I was really starting to worry about myself.

And around that time because I’m just interested in technology in general, I decided I would buy a Kindle. It was one of the first Kindles. And what I found was that for me, the Kindle was enormously helpful. I had gotten sort of addicted to screens and it was a screen. I got sort of addicted to tapping things with my fingers and thumbs and this head up I could click my thumb and turn the pages. And the Kindle really helped me to get my concentration back. But the main thing there is, it is a screen and you do use your thumbs to turn the pages, but it really isn’t good for anything else.

I mean there’s a rudimentary web browser on the Kindle, but it’s terrible. Anybody who’s tried it knows that you can’t do with it. And so, it doesn’t distract me. It’s not always offering me something else. I can’t read that way if I’m on my phone or an iPad or my computer because in the back of my mind I always know I’m two taps or two clicks away from looking at somebody’s Instagram feed. The Kindle was really good for me in helping me to get back into reading and being able to pay attention for a long period of time. So, I don’t read on the Kindle as much as I did, but for that season of my life, it was incredibly helpful to me.

Brett McKay:

What kind of books would you read? Did you find yourself gravitating to certain kinds of books that you read on the Kindle?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. Mainly I would read things that I didn’t feel I needed to mark up. So, I don’t think if my life depended on it, I could teach from a Kindle version of a book. Teaching for me is all about having that page that’s marked up. There’s also a really, really important thing when you’re teaching the kind of books that I teach and I do kind of work in a sort of a great books environment part, at least part of the time.

You know when you have a book in your hand and I’ll say, “Okay, turn to page 69 and then we’ll read something on 69.” I’ll say, “Okay, now keep your finger there and let’s go over to page 221.” And then we look at that and we compare the two. You really can’t do that on a Kindle. It’s almost impossible. Whereas it’s easy as pie in a codex book. So, it’s when I don’t need to mark something up that I will read the Kindle.

Often that’s pleasure reading, but sometimes I’ll actually know that I need to teach a book and I will actually buy both the codex version and the Kindle version and the first time through I’ll just read the Kindle version just to give me a kind of a first read through and then that helps me when I turn to the codex to the paper book to know how to annotate it better.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. So, the Kindle kind of eliminated whim. But I liked that idea where with a paperback book, you can go to one place, then go back. What I love about books is you can just like, I have my shelf full of books. I can just grab a random book and just open it a random place and read something. I can’t do that with a Kindle.

Alan Jacobs:

No, no. I mean, there’s a lot more clicks involved with that. It’s also one of the things that I tell my students sometimes when they’re not sure they’re going to do research for a topic and they’re not really sure exactly what they need, I tell them, “Look, don’t go to the library’s webpage and search that way. Or if you do, only do it for the very first book or the very first article on your list. Once you’ve got that, go to the library.”

Because what you’re going to do, you go pick a book off the shelf and look at the five books to the left of it and look at the five books to the right of it. And look at the books, just above and just below. You’re actually getting this really rich context for all the things that people might write about this particular subject. And that’s almost impossible to replicate online. So, when students are really trying to generate ideas, I tell them, “Go to the library. Don’t just look it up on your laptop. Go to the library.”

Brett McKay:

So, you mentioned one of the downsides of a Kindle is you can highlight things in Kindle, but that’s about it. You have all sections. I love when people talk about how they’re sort of systems they develop to annotating and marginalia and all that stuff. Because what I love about that is it allows you, when you write in a book, it allows you to have a dialogue with the writer.

Alan Jacobs:

Yup, yup. You have the dialogue with the writer and then as I said, if you go back and read that book again later, you can have that dialog with your earlier self as well. So, yeah. So, if all you can do in a Kindle is highlight and one thing about highlighting is that there’s a lot of research on this that highlighting does not aid retention. It does not help your memory. There’s no difference between people who highlight and people who make no highlights at all in terms of what they remember later on.

Now, I might highlight sometimes because it makes it faster for me when I’m in class to find the passage that I want to read out loud. But when I’m actually reading and interacting with the book, I have my little syntax. If I think a passage is really brilliant, I will put a star next to it. If I think the passage is really interesting, but I’m not sure what I think about it or it’s a surprising idea, I’ll put an exclamation point. If I doubt that what the person says is right, I’ll put a question mark. And if I’m absolutely convinced the person is wrong, I put BS next to it.

And then sometimes I’ll go back later on and I’ll change my mind. And I’ll say, “No, that shouldn’t have been an exclamation point. That should have been a question mark,” something like that.

Brett McKay:

Do you write questions out, like write things in your margins, like sentences? Is that something you do?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. Yeah, I do. But I do that much more often when I know I’m going to have to teach something or I’m going to have to write about it. And of course, not all books really make room for that. So, I keep sticky notes around. And when I have something a little longer to write, I’ll write it on the sticky note and then put it on the relevant page. And that’s also good because those are easy to find. I wouldn’t be doing that if I didn’t think this was a passage that I really needed to think about. So, it helps me to go back and discover the most important passages.

Brett McKay:

And do you do this like if you’re reading a Stephen King novel?

Alan Jacobs:

No, no, no. When I’m reading something, when I’m reading a novel just for fun or just for my own personal satisfaction, I’ll do that more often than not on the Kindle. And then if there’s a really interesting passage, I’ll highlight it and then I can go back and look at it later on. But that’s not the main way that I’m engaging with that story. I really want to be absorbed in the story. And every time you stop to make a note, you’re kind of lifting yourself out of the story a little bit. And that’s not the best thing for many novels.

Brett McKay:

Well, speaking of the Kindle highlight feature, one thing that bugs me, and you talk about this in the books, I am glad you did, was that they had that feature where while you’re reading on your Kindle, it will show you passages that were highlighted the most.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. It drives me crazy.

Brett McKay:

You just ruined it. Like now, I think, oh, this is important. And if it wasn’t there, I probably wouldn’t have think it was that important.

Alan Jacobs:

Right. But here’s the one thing, when you look at that popular highlights in any book, all of the popular highlights are in the first 15 pages.

Brett McKay:

Yes. It’s hilarious.

Alan Jacobs:

After that, nobody’s commenting on anything.

Brett McKay:

You can see when people gave up.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay:

So, another tactic people that developed when they had … So, they had this idea that I’m super distracted. I don’t have much time to read. I’ve got to get through this list of books. People are talking about, if I learn how to speedread, this, this will get me through. What do you think about speed reading?

Alan Jacobs:

Well, first of all, speed reading really doesn’t work. Not the way that people think that it does. There’s a lot of studies on this. There are just simply limitations on how our eyes work, our ability to scan particular passages of text that mean that you really can’t speed it up that much. But even if it did work, I’m not sure it’s the best way for people to do what they need to do.

Because look, I’ve been in that situation many times too where I have to get a quick grasp on something. I don’t have time to sit down with my pencil in my hand and annotate carefully. I mean, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. So, when I’m in that situation, let’s say it’s an article, it’s a long kind of complicated article on a difficult subject and I’m not sure what exactly is in it. I’m not sure how important it’s going to be. Speed reading actually would be a lousy way to address that problem.

What I do in a case like that and I think a lot of scholarly readers do the same thing. I’ll read the first paragraph of the article carefully, then I’ll read the last paragraph of the article carefully. And on the basis of that, I have some idea of what’s going on in it. If I realize sometimes at that point I say, “Oh, I don’t need to pursue this any further. It’s not going to get me what I want.” But I’ve found that out a lot quicker than I would by speed reading. But if after reading the first paragraph and the last paragraph, I think I still need to look into this some more, I go back to the second paragraph and I read the first sentence of it. Then I read the first sentence of the paragraph after that.

And in that way, what I’m doing is I’m starting at 40,000 feet and then I’m coming down to 20,000 feet. And then ultimately if I see, “Oh, this thing is really valuable,” then I stop and I go through the whole thing. Or if I don’t have time to do that, I make a note. This is something I need to come back to and read carefully. But right now, I’m just getting the main points. And that is actually a much more efficient and useful way to get hold of something in a short period of time than speed reading because I’m getting the structure of the argument rather than just treating every word as being the same value as every other word.

Brett McKay:

Well, that’s a tactic for Mortimer Adler. I mean, so we kind of dogged on in the beginning.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

But you say no, look his book, How to Read a Book, which I think everyone should read it. I think it’s really useful information there, but he kind of tells you different ways you can read a book that can allow you to do things that you do.

Alan Jacobs:

Yup, yup. Absolutely. And that’s the thing, it’s not that he doesn’t give good advice, it’s just that he only has one kind of reading in mind and he tends to leave out the many kinds of reading that are rewarding and above all pleasurable that don’t really lend themselves to that sort of model. But if you really do have to know something in a short period of time, Adler is actually a much better guide for you than any speed reading program would be.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. I’ve kind of developed my own tactics for reading different kinds of books because you start recognizing different kinds of books have different types of formats and certain formats are conducive to certain types of readings. So, if I’m reading a fiction book, I don’t skim that at all. I’m going to read that. I’m going to savor it like a hard work of philosophy. I’m going to go through that, take my time.

But if it’s like one of those pop psychology, pop business books, like here’s the format on those things. It’s a cookie cutter. What you do is you start off with a principal and then you start off with an anecdote where someone like stories highlighting and then like there’s bullet points and that’s it. And so, you can just skim those things. I know I can skip the anecdote.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

You can just get to the principles.

Alan Jacobs:

Yup. Rinse and repeat. Yeah. That’s how they’re put together. And there’s a reason for that. The publishing industry knows that that’s the sort of thing that works, but you don’t have to read it in the way that it’s written. You can read it in the way that works for you.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. So, yeah. And another thing, once you start reading those books, you realize they all talk about the marshmallow experiment.

Alan Jacobs:

Oh yeah, yeah, I know. Defer gratification.

Brett McKay:

Right or the gorilla, the invisible gorilla.

Alan Jacobs:

The gorilla that nobody sees bouncing the basketballs.

Brett McKay:

Once you know those, if you know those, you can just skip through that.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. There’s the Stanley Milgram obedience to authority experiments. There’s the Stanford prison experiment. Yeah. It’s about five experiments. It’s in every one of those books

Brett McKay:

I thought about writing a book where it’s like all the experiments you need to know to get through any business pop psychology book as quickly as possible.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, that’s great.

Brett McKay:

So, yeah, you don’t have to read every book the same and you can skim stuff if you want, if you think it’s conducive. What’s your take about finishing or not finishing books?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, that’s a funny thing because when I was up until I was maybe in my early 20s, I finished every book that I started and it was at one point I was reading a book, a novel by William Gaddis called The Recognitions. And it’s over a thousand pages long. And I was just flogging myself through this book. I mean, I wasn’t getting it. I really probably wasn’t the right reader for that book, especially at that time in my life. And I was just so miserable. But I was like, but I have to finish, I have to finish, but I couldn’t read anything else. Because this thing was like the albatross around my neck.

And I remember getting to page 666, the mark of the beast and I thought, “The hell with this thing, I’m not going to finish it.” And it was like one of the most liberating moments of my life because I realized, “No, I gave it a good shot. I gave it more than a good shot. There was no value added for me in flogging myself all the way to the end of this thing. It’s totally fine if I set it aside.”

And I have a friend, Austin Kleon, the guy who wrote a Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work and Keep Going. And Austin’s a big fan of setting aside books that they’re just not doing anything for him. And I love the way he talks about it. He says what he tells people when he sets a book aside like that, he said, “Yeah, that one’s not for me.” He’s not saying it’s a bad book. He’s not saying it’s a useless book. He’s just saying, “Yeah, I’m probably not the right reader for that book. That one’s not really for me.”

And I really liked that attitude because not everything is going to be for me. Not everything is going to be for you. There are some things that we’re just not going to be able to get our heads around even if everybody else likes it. It’s just not for me. And that’s okay.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. So, I have always been like a big finisher of books too. Because I’m always like maybe there’s might be some gem, one single gem. But then lately, I’ve gotten to the point where I give up on books. Like I’m a member of a great books book club here in my town. Our policy is like, read it, but if it’s not doing anything for you, just give up. And then we talk about like why you gave up on it.

Alan Jacobs:

That’s right.

Brett McKay:

What was it? So, I had to do that with, we were in Erasmus and Martin Luther’s debate about freewill and I had to give up on that and I couldn’t finish it. I tried and I’m like, “No, I can’t. I can’t do it.”

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah. But that’s great. Right? If you didn’t talk about why, like what was it that I couldn’t get into what was impeding me? What was getting in my way? You learn something about yourself as a reader, but you also learn something about that book. Maybe you learn something in that case about just how differently people did arguments, made arguments in the 16th century than we make arguments today. I mean there’s a lot to be learned from understanding why something was not for you.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. And so, we read books to our kids. So, speaking of like, just sort of savoring books, reading books out loud is a whole different reading experience.

Alan Jacobs:

Oh yes.

Brett McKay:

So, we started reading the Secret Garden last year and we tried to get through but then we were almost like a quarter left and we just couldn’t do it anymore. Because it was all about Dick and Dick is such a great boy and like it’d be like a chapter about a sprout growing and we just like, “No, we can’t do it.” So, we just gave up. It was funny. My daughter picked it up and threw it in disgust. We switched over. John Bellairs, we’re really into his series of books. We’ve been liking that.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, that’s great. When I was a kid, I grew up in a weird house in that nobody in my family had even graduated from high school, but everybody was a reader. They mainly read pop fiction. So, our house was just full of books, thousands of books. But they were all like science fiction, mysteries, westerns, romances. Mom read the romances. My grandmother read mysteries. My father read science fiction and westerns. And the house would just fold up those things.

And I started picking those up when I was like four or five years old. And I kind of went straight from Dr. Seuss to Louis L’Amour and Robert Heinlein. And I didn’t read any of the children’s classics. And so, when our son was born, that was such a great thing for me because all of those books that I never read when I was a kid I was able to read to him. And I think it was, he liked it, but I think I liked it more than he did.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. Reading kid’s books as an adult. That’s an interesting reading experience as well.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, it really is. Yeah. Yeah, it really is. This is just kind of a random thing. But I had a friend whose son, he was actually my son’s best friend when they were little, and he was a really bright young man, or boy, he was really bright boy, but he couldn’t learn to read. And he was getting into second grade, he couldn’t read at all. And his parents went, “This doesn’t make any sense. He’s not dyslexic. He doesn’t have any of the common issues, what’s the deal?”

And at some point, a teacher said, “You know I think he can read. I think you need to talk to him.” And so, they sat him down and they talked to him and he tearfully confessed that he did indeed know how to read. “But then why won’t you read?” They said, “What’s the problem?” He said, “If I read on my own, then you won’t read books to me anymore.”

Brett McKay:

Oh man, that’s sad.

Alan Jacobs:

And then they said, “No, no, no. We’ll read books to you. We’ll read them until you’re 21 if that’s what you want.” And then he was okay, but he really thought that once you learn to read for yourself, then you weren’t allowed to be read to anymore and they just had no idea he was thinking that.

Brett McKay:

Well, speaking of a lot of parents who are reader, they want to raise readers, but this idea of reading at whim, like inculcating that in yourself so your kids see that and they see the readings, just something fun they do and like let them read what they want to read, I mean within reason.

Alan Jacobs:

Within reason.

Brett McKay:

But if they want to read Captain Underpants.

Alan Jacobs:

Fine.

Brett McKay:

My kid, my son, he’s like nine. He’s into those little graphic novel type things, loves them, but he’s reading all the time. I’m like, “Hey, great.”

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. My son was really big in horrible histories. That was while one of his big things when he was little and that’s totally fine. What a lot of this is, a really important thing to think about here is that what do you want your kids to associate reading with? Do you want them to associate it with drudgery and pain and just being flogged basically to do this or do you want them to associate it with pleasure and delight and humor?

If they associate it with pleasure and delight and humor, they’re much more likely to be readers as adults. And when they get to the point where they’re ready to pursue something that is more interesting, a little deeper, a little wiser, a little more challenging, they’ll be prepared to do that. They won’t be afraid to do that because they have positive associations with reading.

I think we do a lot of damage when we overly police our kids’ reading to try to make sure that they’re only reading really, really worthwhile things because then it does become for them the same as eating their broccoli and that’s not a great idea.

Brett McKay:

Well, speaking of kids, do you think readers are born or made or is it both?

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah, yeah. I mean I think it’s some of both. I mean, I think that there are some people for whom … Reading as Steven Pinker says in one of his books, language is hardwired, but reading is bolted on. And I think that’s true. And sometimes that’s a kind of an awkward connection and there are some people who are just not cognitively wired to process reading. It’s just difficult for them. And that’s totally fine.

I mean, a lot of these people are fantastic at other things that are equally intellectually challenging. It’s totally fine. But if you are capable of processing it, if you’ve got that kind of, that your mind works that way, then I think the most important thing is what are the examples that you see as you’re growing up? And so, I am a reader now and I’m a college professor now because my parents who did not even have a high school education read all the time and it seemed normal to me.

The really funny thing by the way is that the TV was on in our house like 24 hours a day. My dad would never allow the television to be turned off. I remember one time we went on vacation and he left the television on when we were away on vacation, but nobody looked at it. It was just kind of background noise. It was like white noise in the background. Everybody was reading and that seemed normal to me. And because it seemed normal to me, I developed a habit myself and it’s lasted me a lifetime.

Brett McKay:

Well, Alan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?

Alan Jacobs:

Well, thanks for asking. Yeah, my website is ayjay, A-Y-J-A-Y, dot org. And that contains links to all of the books and places where you may buy them and things like that. And I’m also on Twitter as Ayjay, A-Y-J-A-Y.

Brett McKay:

Fantastic. Well, Alan Jacobs, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Alan Jacobs:

It’s been great, Brett, thanks.

Brett McKay:

My guest was Alan Jacobs. He’s the author of the book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/pleasuresofreading where you find links to resources where you delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, where thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so in Stitcher Premium. Head of the stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code Manliness at checkout to get a free month trial of Stitcher premium. And then you can download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast.

And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

 

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