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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011)

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We've discussed Alan Jacobs here and here, among other places. His 150-page discussion of why we should read is a grand book in a small package. He brings up Lewis and Tolkein, but his book isn't overtly theological. On the last page he mentions that he considers the book "an exercise in lived theology," but the book ends two lines later, with no elaboration on the term.

Jacobs stands against canons and lists of what one should read. He advocates reading by whim (read the book to learn more),while gently encouraging people to go deeper than Harry Potter and Stephen King. He also strongly advocates for the Kindle -- a surprise to me, although a stimulating, refreshing one.

The book is also a companion of sorts to Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows, which Jacobs quotes from extensively in addressing the same issues (distractions, per the title)

I came away from the book feeling uplifted, and only slightly, and momentarily, rebuked along the way.

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In a matter of the last couple weeks, yours is the third recommendation I've seen for this. My copy just arrived in the mail yesterday. Looking forward to it.

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Bump. Has anyone else read this book? I keep reading things that bring it to mind. I really need to own a copy. It's a great book.

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I read it back in the spring and loved it. I've commented on it in another thread around here but I've forgotten which one. I'm seriously considering reading it again in January because I think it really gave me a fresh perspective for my reading this year by encouraging me to read by Whim (different from whim, he argues) and giving me permission to ignore "canons."

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I read it last year, and I began writing notes on it. When I have the time, I'll pull them out and write a better summary of what I found in it.

Off the top of my head, I don't know if I took from the book that I had "permission to ignore canons." The sense that I got was that Jacobs was making a strong argument for reading for pleasure. But I don't think he argued that the "literary canons" are without value, nor that that reading a book out of a sense of obligation is always a bad thing. The point is that if you're always reading out a sense of obligation, then you are not going to enjoy reading. Enjoying reading is a necessary element to being able to get from a book what you ought to get from it, and there's a certain amount of snobbery out there that frowns upon reading for enjoyment that Jacobs refutes. Sometimes, reading only for pleasure is all the justification you need - and thus, we have the ability to enjoy books by the likes of even Mickey Spillane or Brett Holiday. (It reminded me of Chesterton's essay, "A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls.") But Jacobs also seemed to argue that one of the points of reading for pleasure is to get yourself to the point where you can read the great books and enjoy them.

You can, in fact, sit down and enjoy reading The Odyssey or Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy. That enjoyment is one of the best reasons for reading them. And, not being able to enjoy them is actually a problem.

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Thanks, Gavin. I'm considering re-reading it now that I have an e-reader.

It was this book that finally taught me how best to use an e-reader.

I read it last year, and I began writing notes on it. When I have the time, I'll pull them out and write a better summary of what I found in it.

Off the top of my head, I don't know if I took from the book that I had "permission to ignore canons." The sense that I got was that Jacobs was making a strong argument for reading for pleasure. But I don't think he argued that the "literary canons" are without value, nor that that reading a book out of a sense of obligation is always a bad thing. The point is that if you're always reading out a sense of obligation, then you are not going to enjoy reading. Enjoying reading is a necessary element to being able to get from a book what you ought to get from it, and there's a certain amount of snobbery out there that frowns upon reading for enjoyment that Jacobs refutes. Sometimes, reading only for pleasure is all the justification you need - and thus, we have the ability to enjoy books by the likes of even Mickey Spillane or Brett Holiday. (It reminded me of Chesterton's essay, "A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls.") But Jacobs also seemed to argue that one of the points of reading for pleasure is to get yourself to the point where you can read the great books and enjoy them.

You can, in fact, sit down and enjoy reading The Odyssey or Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy. That enjoyment is one of the best reasons for reading them. And, not being able to enjoy them is actually a problem.

Yeah, "ignoring canons" was a poor choice of words. A better way to say it may have been "it gave me permission to determine mine reading list based on what gives me pleasure and to pay less attention to the literary canonists like Harold Bloom whose word I've often been tempted to take as gospel." That's not to say that Bloom's opinion is without merit-- his grasp of literature is hard to beat-- but he's one who seems to be strict about which books are "in" and which books are "out" and Jacobs disagrees with him specifically in the book, as I recall. Thanks for pointing that out.

But you hit on another thing I really appreciated about Jacobs' book. He gives the reader permission to read, for instance, Stephen King (if that gives you pleasure), but he encourages the reader to move upstream (towards those who inspired King) rather than downstream (to the knockoff versions of King). And, as you say, the goal is that eventually we'll learn to find pleasure in the "canon."

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So I went back last night and reread the second half again. Ironically enough, in a book that specifically recommends slowing down when you read, I had read the last half of the book rather hurriedly in quick snatches during lunch breaks at work.

But now that I spent a little more time with the book, I can also say I appreciate the following:

- Jacobs as an advocate for reading is a more moderate version of Nicholas Carr. I highly appreciate Carr, but Jacobs has probably developed a better approach to convincing those who are not already convinced of the value of reading. (He is, after all, a literature professor). I didn't think of this until considering Jacobs' arguments, but the internet-is-wiring-our-brains-into-shallow-thinking crowd, of whom I'm happily a member, is close to the danger of viewing reading as useful upon purely utilitarian grounds. If "deep reading" is a necessary skill for thinking, then you need to discipline your mind in order to do this in order to be capable of the kind of thinking that you need. This turns the debate into a discussion over what kind of thinking has the most utility in the modern age. I'd take the view that the ancients are right, but that doesn't change the fact that the discussion is still set in a utilitarian framework.

- This book challenges the arguments based purely on utility, and goes beyond them. The purpose of reading is not simply to form the sort of wiring that your brain needs to achieve a maximum allocation of neurological resources. That is, if I follow Jacobs, a mere advantageous side effect. Being able to concentrate for long periods of time is not necessarily the same as being "rapt" or "lost in a book." One involves a habit or discipline, formed for educational and intellectual reasons. The other involves the senses and the feelings in a way that is more profound.

- It's almost as if it is possible, even while arguing for the utility of "deep reading" to still be stuck in a sort of dualism, where the benefits of the mind are still divorced from spiritual and emotional life. To be fair to Carr, he does understand and does promote these other advantages and pleasures. But to argue that you ought to read Hume or Tolstoy in order to wire your brain is not the best of reasons to read. For Jacobs, the argument becomes that you ought to read for Whim and pleasure. At least, this is the beginning. If pleasure and enjoyment is the beginning, then that's where you can build on improving your taste and sensibility in ways that T.S. Eliot would approve.

- It's not that, if you agree with Jacobs here, that you need to reject the promoters of, or even the idea of, the literary "canon." It's that the idea of the canon is not the best place to start, especially if you are encouraging and influencing others to read. Thus we have the idea of intellectual pleasure, which, in a world where various forms of dualism are false, is not separated from the physical or the spiritual.

- I think Jacobs could take these ideas much much farther if he wanted to. In fact, I sure he does in the classes that he teachs. This book felt like a little introduction to some really big ideas, ideas that he convinces the reader that it is about time to explore.

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79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation. - by Alan Jacobs

  • Everything begins with attention.
  • It is vital to ask, “What must I pay attention to?”
  • It is vital to ask, “What may I pay attention to?”
  • It is vital to ask, “What must I refuse attention to?”
  • To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.
  • Attention is not an infinitely renewable resource; but it is partially renewable, if well-invested and properly cared for.
  • We should evaluate our investments of attention at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money.
  • Sir Francis Bacon provides a narrow and stringent model for what counts as attentiveness: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
  • An essential question is, “What form of attention does this phenomenon require? That of reading or seeing? That of writing also? Or silence?”
  • Attentiveness must never be confused with the desire to mark or announce attentiveness. (“Can I learn to suffer/Without saying something ironic or funny/On suffering?”—Prospero, in Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror)
  • “Mindfulness” seems to many a valid response to the perils of incessant connectivity because it confines its recommendation to the cultivation of a mental stance without objects.
  • That is, mindfulness reduces mental health to a single, simple technique that delivers its user from the obligation to ask any awkward questions about what his or her mind is and is not attending to.
  • The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.
  • Such mindfulness, and all other healthy forms of attention—healthy for oneself and for others—can only happen with the creation of and care for an attentional commons.
  • This will not be easy to do in a culture for which surveillance has become the normative form of care.
  • Simone Weil wrote that ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’; if so, then surveillance is the opposite of attention.
  • The primary battles on social media today are fought by two mutually surveilling armies: code fetishists and antinomians.
  • The intensity of those battles is increased by a failure by any of the parties to consider the importance of intimacy gradients.
  • “And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.”—Bertolt Brecht, writing about Twitter
  • We cannot understand the internet without perceiving its true status: The Internet is a failed state.
  • We cannot respond properly to that failed-state condition without realizing and avoiding the perils of seeing like a state.
  • If instead of thinking of the internet in statist terms we apply the logic of subsidiarity, we might be able to imagine the digital equivalent of a Mondragon cooperative.
  • The internet groans in travail as it awaits its José María Arizmendiarrieta.
  • Useful strategies of resistance require knowledge of technology’s origin stories.
  • Building an alternative digital commons requires reimagining, which requires renarrating the past (and not just the digital past).
  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • Recent technologies enable a renewal of commentary, but struggle to overcome a post-Romantic belief that commentary is belated, derivative.
  • Comment threads too often seethe with resentment at the status of comment itself. “I should be the initiator, not the responder!”
  • Only a Bakhtinian understanding of the primacy of response in communication could genuinely renew online discourse.
  • Nevertheless certain texts will generate communities of comment around them, communities populated by the humbly intelligent.
  • Blessed are they who strive to practice commentary as a legitimate, serious genre of responsiveness to others’ thoughts.
  • And blessed also are those who discover how to write so as to elicit genuine commentary.
  • Genuine commentary is elicited by the scriptural but also by the humble—but never by the (insistently) canonical.
  • “Since we have no experience of a venerable text that ensures its own perpetuity, we may reasonably say that the medium in which it survives is commentary.”—Frank Kermode
  • We should seek technologies that support the maximally beautiful readerly sequence of submission, recovery, comment.
  • If our textual technologies promote commentary but we resist it, we will achieve a Pyrrhic victory over our technologies.
  • “Western literature may have more or less begun, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with a lengthy account of a signal crossing space, and of the beacon network through whose nodes the signal’s message (that of Troy’s downfall) is relayed—but now, two and a half millennia later, that network, that regime of signals, is so omnipresent and insistent, so undeniably inserted or installed at every stratum of existence, that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.”—Tom McCarthy
  • To work against the grain of a technology is painful to us and perhaps destructive to the technology, but occasionally necessary to our humanity.
  • “Technology wants to be loved,” says Kevin Kelly, wrongly: But we want to invest our technologies with human traits to justify our love for them.
  • Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
  • The agency that in the 1970s philosophers & theorists ascribed to language is now being ascribed to technology. These are evasions of the human.
  • Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.
  • Therefore when Kelly says, “I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives,” he seeks to promote what technology does worst.
  • We try to give power to our idols so as to be absolved of the responsibilities of human agency. The more they have, the less we have.
  • “In a sense there is no God as yet achieved, but there is that force at work making God, struggling through us to become an actual organized existence, enjoying what to many of us is the greatest conceivable ecstasy, the ecstasy of a brain, an intelligence, actually conscious of the whole, and with executive force capable of guiding it to a perfectly benevolent and harmonious end.”—George Bernard Shaw in 1907, or Kevin Kelly last week
  • The cyborg dream is the ultimate extension of this idolatry: to erase the boundaries between our selves and our tools.
  • Cyborgs lack humor, because the fusion of person and tool disables self-irony. The requisite distance from environment is missing.
  • To project our desires onto our technologies is to court permanent psychic infancy.
  • Though this does not seem to be widely recognized, the “what technology wants” model is fundamentally at odds with the “hacker” model.
  • The “hacker” model is better: Given imagination and determination, we can bend technologies to our will.
  • Thus we should stop thinking about “what technology wants” and start thinking about how to cultivate imagination and determination.
  • Speaking of “what technology wants” is an unerring symptom of akrasia.
  • The physical world is not infinitely redescribable, but if you had to you could use a screwdriver to clean your ears.
  • The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.
  • This epidemic of forgetting where algorithms come from is the newest version of “I for one welcome our new insect overlords.”
  • It seems not enough for some people to attribute consciousness to algorithms; they must also grant them dominion.
  • Perhaps Loki was right—and C. S. Lewis too: “I was not born to be free—I was born to adore and obey.”
  • Any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.—Alex Tabarrok
  • Jaron Lanier: “The Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart.”
  • What does it say about our understanding of human intelligence that we think it is something that can be assessed by a one-off “test”—and one that is no test at all, but an impression of the moment?
  • To attribute intelligence to something is to disclaim responsibility for its use.
  • The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.
  • Embrace the now intolerable.
  • Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.
  • Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to revisit and refresh certain synaptic connections between mind and body.
  • To shift from typing to (hand)writing to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies.
  • It’s fine to say “use the simplest technology that will do the job,” but in fact you’ll use the one you most enjoy using.
  • A modern school of psychoanalysis should be created that focuses on interpreting personality on the basis of the tools that one finds enjoyable to use.
  • Thinking of a technology as a means of pleasure may be ethically limited, but it’s much healthier than turning it into an idol.
  • The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect grows more pronounced when online and offline life are functionally unrelated.
  • A more useful term than “Dunning-Kruger effect” is “digitally-amplified anosognosia.”
  • More striking even than the anger of online commentary is its humorlessness. Too many people have offloaded their senses of humor to YouTube clips.
  • A healthy comment thread is a (more often than not) funny comment thread.
  • The protection of anonymity one reason why people write more extreme comments online than they would speak in person—but not the only one.
  • The digital environment disembodies language in this sense: It prevents me from discerning the incongruity between my anger and my person.
  • Consistent pseudonymity creates one degree of disembodiment; varying pseudonymity and anonymity create infinite disembodiment.
  • On the internet nothing disappears; on the internet anything can disappear.
  • “To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, ‘What can I know?’ we ask, ‘What, at this moment, am I meant to know?’—to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge we can live up to—that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.”—Auden

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Chad Wellmon, March 30, 2015:
“Throughout his theses, Jacobs describes attention as a resource to be managed. We ‘pay,’ ‘refuse,’ and ‘invest’ attention. Behind these distributive acts is a purposeful, willful agent. I can choose whether to “give” attention to writing this post or ‘withhold’ it from my eleven-year-old son (who wants me to explain what the Turing test is). The idea that I can allocate attention as I could any other resource or good suggests that attention is fungible. I’ve got a limited store of attention, and I have to decide when and where to expend it. It’s as though I wake up every day with 100 units of attention. And it’s up to me manage them well.

... And this distributive notion of attention seems to underpin many of our contemporary anxieties about our current moment of digital distraction. The constant notifications from Twitter, Facebook, and my iPhone are all greedy consumers of my attention. If I were just focused, I could assert my powers of distribution and maintain control of my limited units of attention. I would be able to decide exactly which among the myriad objects clamoring for my attention deserves it.

... But this image of a sovereign self governing an internal economy of attention is a poor description of other experiences of the world and ourselves. In addition, it levies an impossible burden of self mastery. A distributive model of attention cuts us off, as Matt Crawford puts it, from the world “beyond [our] head.” It suggests that anything other than my own mind that lays claim to my attention impinges upon my own powers to willfully distribute that attention. My son’s repeated questions about the Turing test are a distraction, but it might also be an unexpected opportunity to engage the world beyond my own head ...”


Alan Jacobs, April 2, 2015:
“I want to begin by responding to that last sentence by saying: Yes, and it is an opportunity you can take only by ceding the sovereignty of self, by choosing (‘willfully’) to allow someone else to occupy your attention, rather than insisting on setting your own course. This is something most of us find it hard to do, which is why Simone Weil says ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ And yet it is our choice whether or not to practice that generosity.

 

... In my theses I am somewhat insistent on employing economic metaphors to describe the challenges and rewards of attentiveness, and in so doing I always had in mind the root of that word, oikonomos (οἰκονόμος), meaning the steward of a household. The steward does not own his household, any more than we own our lifeworld, but rather is accountable to it and answerable for the decisions he makes within it. The resources of the household are indeed limited, and the steward does indeed have to make decisions about how to distribute them, but such matters do not mark him as a 'sovereign self' but rather the opposite: a person embedded in a social and familial context within which he has serious responsibilities. But he has to decide how and when (and whether) to meet those responsibilities. So, too, the person embedded in an 'attention economy.' ..."

 

Ned O'Gorman, April 7, 2015:

"I find it perplexing, then, that Jacobs is so seemingly unsympathetic to the meaningfulness of things, the class to which technologies belong ... Our technological artifacts aren’t wholly distinct from human agency; they are bound up with it. ‘Human agency,’ then, is not a solution to the moral and political problems of technology; it is the condition of their possibility, and too often a means of their rationalization. We don’t need to reclaim ‘human agency’; we need to reclaim the meaningfulness and power of things (res)—the complex ways in which human decisions and choices become embodied, even sedimented in things. It is odd to read a literary critic, one with some medieval sensibilities no less, expressing concern about ascribing ‘agency’ to technology, calling it ‘evasions of the human.’ Texts are technologies, technologies are things ..."

 

Andrew Piper, April 9, 2015:

“... Not all is lost today. While comment threads seethe, there is also a vibrant movement afoot to remake the web as a massive space of commentary. The annotated web, as it’s called, has the aim of transforming our writing spaces from linked planes to layered marginalia. Whether you like it or not, that blog or corporate presence you worked so hard to create can be layered with the world’s thoughts. Instead of writing up here and commenting down there, it reverses the hierarchy and places annotating on top. Needless to say, it has a lot of people worried.

I personally prefer the vision of ‘annotation’ to commentary. Commentary feels very emulative to me—it tries to double as writing in a secondary space. Annotation by contrast feels more architectural and versatile. It builds, but also branches. It is never finished, nor does it aim to be so. It intermingles with the original text more subtly than the here/there structure of commentary. But whether you call it annotation or commentary, the point is the same—to take seriously the writer’s responsiveness to another person.

Missing from these models is pedagogy. The annotated web gives us one example of how to remake the technology of writing to better accommodate responsiveness. It’s a profound first step, one that will by no means be universally embraced (which should give us some idea of how significant it is). But we do not yet have a way of teaching this to new (or old) writers ...”

 

Julia Ticona, April 13, 2015:

“... People who rely on their smartphones for Internet access are more likely to be young, low-income, and non-white, the same population with some of the highest levels of unemployment. With the migration of most job-seeking to online databases and applications, all members of the ‘always-connected’ might not experience the ‘pleasures of disconnection’ in the same way as the middle class knowledge worker with high-speed Internet access at home and at work. In reality, the ‘always-connected’ is a large and diverse group, and is quickly becoming even larger and even more diverse.

... It’s through the image of a series of hands grasping, texting, and swiping away that my attention is drawn to the people at other end of the technologies that shape our lives. As Jacobs points out, technology doesn’t want anything, “we want, with technology as our instrument,” but the question of who we are is isn’t just idle sociological speculation. It’s vital to imagining alternative arrangements of both people and technology, as well as more humane practices that may benefit us all.”

 

Ned O'Gorman, April 14, 2015:

“... But intentionality as I am calling it here goes beyond the artifacts themselves, to include the broader practices and discourses in which they are embedded. Indeed, the ‘intentionality’ of a thing is likely to be stronger where those broader practices and discourses operate at the level of assumption rather than explicit indoctrination. So much of the meaningfulness of things is tacitly known and experienced, only becoming explicit when they are taken away. So there are things, their affordances, and the practices and discourses in which they are embedded. And here I think it is rhetorically legitimate, ontologically plausible, and ethically justified to say that technologies can want.

Rhetorically, every culture animates its things through language. I do not think this is mere embellishment. It entails a recognition that non-human things are profoundly meaningful to us, and that they can be independent actors as they are ‘activated’ or ‘deactivated’ in our lives ... Ontologically, the issue hinges in part on whether we tie ‘wanting’ to will, especially to the will of a single, intending human agent (hence, the issue of voluntarianism). If we tether wanting to will in a strong sense, we end up in messy philosophical terrain. What do we do with instinct, bodily desires, sensations, affections, and the numerous other forms of ‘wanting’ that do not seem to be a product of our will? ... Jacobs and I agree, I think, that the most pressing issue in saying technologies want is ethical. Jacobs thinks that in speaking of technologies as having agency, I am essentially surrendering agency to technical things. I disagree.

I think it is perfectly legitimate and indeed ethically good and right to speak of technologies as ‘wanting.’ ‘To want’ is not simply to exercise a will but rather more broadly to embody a structure of intention within a given context or set of contexts. Will-bearing and non-will-bearing things, animate and inanimate things, can embody such a structure of intention. It is good and right to call this ‘wanting’ because ‘wanting’ suggests that things, even machine things, have an active presence in our life—they are intentional. They cannot be reduced to mere tools or instruments, let alone ‘a piece of plastic that when depressed activates an electrical current.’ Moreover, this active presence cannot be neatly traced back to their design and, ultimately, some intending human ...

So far from leading, as Jacobs claims, to the ‘Borg Complex’ — the belief that resistance to technology is futile — it is only by coming to grips with the profound and active power of things that we best recognize that resistance to technology is, as Jacobs correctly argues, a cultural project, not a merely personal one, let alone primarily a definitional one ...”

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