The Pleasures of Whim

Brett McCracken was right to name Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction one of the five books recent college graduates should read. A quick yet deeply insightful read, this book was written, in the words of the author, for “those who have caught a glimpse of what reading can give—pleasure, wisdom, joy—even if that glimpse came long ago.” Jacobs writes not to those who have never liked reading, but instead to those who have grown accustomed to academic (i.e. obligated) reading or to “checklist” reading, whereby only “classic” or “important” books are deemed worthy of a reader’s time.

Jacobs provides some guidelines for how to read for fun:

  • Whim: read what you want, when you want to, without shame…
  • Aspiration: …but don’t get stuck reading the same stuff—branch out
  • Upstream: seek out the older works that inspired your favorites and be challenged to “swim upstream”
  • Responsiveness: don’t be afraid to take notes and respond to the text
  • Slow: you’ll miss the little things if you view reading as simply uploading information; slow down and you’ll absorb more

Though I read a lot as a kid and through adolescence (if mostly in school), I didn’t start reading for fun again until after college graduation. Faced with an entire life ahead of no-requirements reading (save for the brief graduate school detour), I plunged head first into reading books that greatly interested me. My palate has consisted mostly of history (specifically the presidential kind), nonfiction, and cultural topics, though I try to throw in a novel once in a while.

Like many people, I’m sure, I struggle with the concept of “so many books, so little time,” wanting to read as much as I can so I can get onto the next book. But in our distracted age, it’s important to practice mindfulness and deep thinking in order to buoy our increasingly attention-deficit brains. I want my mind to be strong and agile now and forevermore, if only so I can still shout out Jeopardy! answers when I’m an old man. Taking notes helps in that regard. Since I mostly use library books and can’t write in the books themselves, I keep a notebook nearby to jot down key points, new words, or cool names for future reference. I don’t take notes on everything; some books, like novels and memoirs, I think should just be enjoyed without the interruption of notes.

But whatever your strategy, I encourage you to read and read a lot. Jacobs’ book is the perfect defibrillator for those who have fallen off the reading wagon but want to get back on. As a formerly indifferent reader, I’m glad I rediscovered some literary locomotion. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

9 responses to “The Pleasures of Whim”

  1. […] is unbelievably easy to do. But I still try to subscribe to the tenets Alan Jacobs lays down in his great book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which I’ve adapted for moviegoing […]

  2. […] enthusiasm” might also be considered a challenge to “swim upstream”: to seek out the earlier, influential works that laid the groundwork for whatever we’re […]

  3. […] morals of the story: Read! For fun! At whim! And do whatever it takes to do so. I didn’t start reading for fun until right after college, […]

  4. […] we all needed to shove it down, no questions asked, no matter how gross it tastes. You can’t read at whim and for pleasure with your nose […]

  5. […] How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and in this book he fulfills a W. H. Auden line he quotes in the book: “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” See also: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. […]

  6. […] a stranger on the internet. Pleasure reading should be based on freedom and empowerment and whim, not compulsion. Use those lists as a resource, sure, but don’t feel obliged to […]

  7. […] the past along with its baggage. It’s a short but punchy book, the third in a trilogy (along with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and How to Think) that together puts forth a commendable vision of intellectual […]

  8. […] remains to follow my own reading values. Don’t worry about the quantity. Read serendipitously and at whim. Don’t forget fiction. And heed the Pollanian reading […]