The Pleasures of Reading – a High Holiday of the Spirit

Received today an order from Amazon with a new book by Alan Jacobs:  The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  I’m only 55 pages into it, but am devouring it; I may be about to use up a highlighter already.

One of the reasons I like the book is that he spends some time poking at Harold Bloom, whose books on “the literary canon” I find unbearably condescending and offputting.  Jacobs has a different approach to reading.

Early in the book, he offers a quote from W. H. Auden that seems counterintuitive.  Great books, Jacobs says,

“are great in part because of what they ask of their readers:  they are not readily encountered, easily assessed…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’…”

How about that!  I’m spending a year indulging myself in a High Holiday of the Spirit!  The High Holidays, or High Holy Days, are a time of reflection in Jewish tradition – and isn’t interaction with a good story one some level a process of reflection on both the self and the text?

Jacobs continues:

“It’s noteworthy that what someone like the young Richard Rodriguez thought of as true and high seriousness – reading masterpieces and masterpieces only – Auden sees as ‘frivolous.’ This is not so paradoxical as it seems.  What’s frivolous is not the masterpiece itself, but the idea that at any given time I the reader am prepared to meet its standards, to rise to its challenges.”

That’s so validating.  Especially this week, when my reading has been intermittent – interrupted by the picnics, awards ceremonies, and parties of the boys’ last week of school, and by my older son’s participation in the individual exhibit category of the National History Day competition, an amazing (and amazingly time-consuming!) program.  For the last few days, being chauffeur, arts-and-crafts wizard, and proud parent while trying to get some laundry done here and there was about as much challenge as I’ve been able to rise to.

Even more validating are Jacobs’ remarks about “whim” and “Whim”:

“In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both.  But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge….”

Looking back on the decision to start my “reading quest,” it seems that I was unknowingly choosing stories on a Whim:  stories culled from collections and anthologies already on my shelves, collections that contain at least one story that already gave me great pleasure to read at some earlier time.  I embarked on my “reading quest” with a plan based not on the decision of a book club, not on some list of “must-read” writers – but with the desire to have some structure.  My “plan” is just a device to keep me reading more of the kinds of stories that I chose over the years from self-knowledge – knowledge of what gives me pleasure to read.

Jacobs goes on to discuss an anonymous critic who read and reread Rudyard Kipling’s Kim “not to teach, not to criticize, just for love – he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself.”  This critic, he says, “had the discernment to grasp a key point: that he was going to kill himself as a reader if he did not allow himself the right and privilege of returning, from time to time, as Whim took him, to something that gave him nothing but pleasure.”

So I may deviate from my “reading plan” here and there, take a side road now and then along the greater highway of the Quest.  Down those roads, also chosen on Whims based in self-knowledge, I hope to find even more reading pleasure this year.

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About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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