Wednesday 11 June 2014

Co-opting our gadgets in the service of "the habits of long-term attentiveness": Alan Jacobs' reflections on reading

Don’t worry. In his book-length set of reflections, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011), Alan Jacobs is not telling us to abandon our gadgets. In a compelling section called “True Confessions” the author shares how he experienced a period of getting less and less pleasure from reading as he was reading less well and taking less time to do it, all occasioned, it seems, by a steadily greater involvement with his RSS reader and the two hundred feeds he subscribed to, along with his twitter account, numerous e-mails, and enticing iPhone apps. He did not engage in an intentional program to get back to reading long-form works. It was an interesting encounter with an e-reader, where he found himself forced to simply read a page at a time – no flipping back and forth, no becoming uncomfortable with the thick slab of unread pages on the right-hand side of the book, no slavish procedure of consulting the glossary for specialized words used in the fiction he was reading (the consultation required a few too many clicks away from the text). He found the zeal for reading he had had when much younger when he regularly read long narratives for the sheer pleasure of it. 

I find it interesting how the central idea of a book is often more clearly and fully articulated in the two or three pages at the center of the text than at other points. This seems to be the case in Jacobs’ engaging set of reflections on how reading relates to the other activities in our lives. There, Jacobs enjoins us to limit our gadget time to get back to the deep engagement that books afford, especially fiction, not because any particular work is good for us, but because the absorption itself is good for us. He reports being remarkably impressed with the novelist David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address, where the crucial point is that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience” (cited on p. 85). 

Jacobs argues that absorption in long-form narratives is training for exercising control over what we pay attention to in many other areas, and especially in how successfully we pay attention to our own mental events: “to read in this utterly absorbed way… is to collaborate with a book on the conquest of time. The book you read – or whatever you read—becomes your ally and your chief support as you take ownership of your inner space and banish those forces that would rule your consciousness” (p. 89). For Jacobs, it is not our duty to simply to let go of our gadgets. 

What he’s recommending is much more subtle and life-invasive than that. He would have us creatively co-opt them in the more challenging pursuit of developing “habits of long-term attentiveness” (p. 82), which in turn re-organize and reassess the contributions of each of these apps to our thinking, planning, and enjoyment of life. 

Jacobs, Alan. (2011). The pleasures of reading in an age of distraction. New York: Oxford University Press.

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