Reading at Whim

Last week, I finished reading Alan Jacobs’ fine book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. I wish I had taken more or better notes (since it was a library book, I couldn’t make scratches in the margins). On the other hand, maybe it’s an indication of how much I enjoyed the book that I didn’t stop and jot down my thoughts every few pages.

Jacobs’ main point in the book is his emphasis on reading at whim. Not just whim, though. Reading at Whim, capital W. Simply put, reading at Whim means that you choose what you will read based on whether or not it gives you pleasure, rather than based on a sense of duty. Jacobs says that, while reading for other reasons (information, understanding) is important, reading for pleasure is healthy for reasons that most of us hardly ever think about. When we read for pleasure, we enjoy art for its own sake, not for the sake of critiquing it or explaining it. And art enjoyed for the sake of enjoyment is art at its most potent.

Even if your idea of reading for enjoyment is classic literature, ration yourself. Jacobs elaborates:

Read what gives you delight – at least most of the time – and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, ‘When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit’ – for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

The capital W in Whim is Jacobs’ way of saying that whim can be cultivated and learned. Not all great books are great for all people at all times. There’s a definite temporal appropriateness to a great book. Jacobs mentions how he grew so frustrated with G. K. Chesterton that he literally threw one of his books across the back yard. But enough of Jacobs’ literary heroes revered Chesterton that he returned to the author again and again. Finally, one day, when the time was right, something Chesterton wrote clicked and Jacobs began to enjoy what he had to say. Reading at Whim requires humility, and sometimes, hard work.

If there’s one specific thing I’ll take away from the book (and I hope that I take away more than just one), it’s Jacobs’ emphasis on re-reading. Why, he asks, do we find picking up a new book more desirable than re-reading a familiar one? Part of the answer has to do with time — our days and minutes are limited and we want to make use of them. With this mindset, re-reading obviously feels like a waste of resources. Another part of the answer may have to do with the pull of the unknown. We’re like to explore because, you never know, we may find something better. But what makes that a convincing argument? Few really excellent books reveal everything about themselves the first time you read them. This part of The Pleasures of Reading made me take another look at my bookshelf to see if there were classics there that I really should revisit.