Reflecting on Alan Jacob’s Reading for Pleasure in an Age of Distraction
The value placed on fiction, and in particular fantasy, can vary in different circles within society: oftentimes Christians–particularly in an academic setting–can see fiction as inconsequential and even, at its worst, escapist. There is sometimes a desire to place fiction and fantasy in a category of frivolousness when it is not being read for class, only to be indulged in when one has the time and needs a break from the heavier, more “important” reading. As college students, we can become so besieged by the constant challenge to perform well, to write the phenomenal paper, to craft the perfect argument, that we forget that we can in fact read and write for our own enjoyment. As I have read through Alan Jacob’s book Reading for Pleasure in an Age of Distraction, I have come to believe that we can read and write for the enjoyment of it, especially when it comes to fiction, and it is intrinsically good for us to do so.
Reading and writing . . . for fun?
It might sound obvious, but in the constant work of college and academic life we have the tendency to fall into a utilitarian mindset concerning both reading and writing. Before we grew up, we may have cherished these things because we loved them, not because we thought it would further our education, job prospects, or others’ opinion of us. Alan Jacobs, a distinguished professor and literary critic, writes on the goodness of reading in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He discusses the culturally American desire to read with the sole purpose of building up our “intellectual muscles,” reading as “a means of self-improvement” (9). Recalling books such as How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren or How to Read Literature as a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, Jacobs writes that “books that aren’t certifiably good for you are, in this way of thinking, to be suspected–and to read for ‘entertainment,’ or the sheer pleasure of the thing, verges on the morally unjustifiable” (11). Although he recognizes that there is obviously much to be gained from reading intellectually, Jacobs challenges readers to consider that greater value can be found in reading simply out of pleasure.
This can, of course, also be applied to our lives as writers as well. We don’t always have to write about what is just intellectual, academic, or scholarly. There is spiritual intrinsic value in writing what we enjoy writing, whether that’s a personal anecdote, short story, or fantasy novel. Just write.
Why should we enjoy it?
It’s not that doing things simply for pleasure is necessarily always a good thing–that line of thinking could take us down a dangerous road very quickly–but delighting in something is deeper than just pursuing the benefits we can reap from it, intellectual or otherwise. We delight in God by taking joy in Him and loving Him for His own sake, and there are parts of this world that we are invited to enjoy because they reflect the handiwork of God, even if they do so imperfectly. Reading and writing both reflect that handiwork as actions that allow us to witness to, and partake in, God’s creation.
We inhabit an academic culture that looks down on or largely refuses to engage with fictional stories simply for the joy of it. There doesn’t always have to be a greater purpose for enjoying fiction, both when reading or creating it. We can too often find ourselves engaging works that others consider to be masterpieces simply in order to build up our literary repertoire, and I would encourage us to consider things a little differently in order to avoid that fate.
Jacobs responds to this trend directly: “There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that [this] approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—‘Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works’—or it can terrify them— ‘How can I be worthy of this high calling?’ Neither response has anything to do with genuine reading” (21). It can inflate our intellectual egoes, or stop us from trying before we even begin, intimidating us as readers and writers into full retreat. This mindset is even more present when we are engaging with fictional works. We shouldn’t view fictional classics like Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lord of the Rings, or Grapes of Wrath as worth reading just because of some shame-induced sense of obligation. We should read them because they are, more often than not, enjoyable books that can be read to do just that: enjoy them.
This is what we do as writers as well! We shouldn’t file our fictional or other creative works away because we don’t think they’re important or well-written enough to match up to what the canon considers “great” literature. Nor should we only write when there is something to write for. Don’t wait for that one assignment, or for a commission of some kind: go and write because you enjoy it! Tell a story that’s never been touched on, write about the world as you see it through your expansive imagination, bring your unique perspective into a genre that’s missing it. Writing is always worth doing simply for that reason.
It is, of course, important to pay attention to how we spend our time, but we should be careful not to pursue things just in order to mark them off the to-do list. Engaging with fiction, works of literature that contain realities beyond our own, is not a waste of time! We don’t just read and write for the information or mental development a book can offer us–we can enjoy things simply because they are worthy of being enjoyed. “The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside what we usually think of as good reasons,” Jacobs writes. “It’s asking us to stop calculating. It’s asking us to do something for the plain old delight and interest of it, not because we can justify its place on the mental spreadsheet or accounting ledger.” It’s not just about what we can gain from reading and writing fiction–the stories themselves can be inherently worthwhile.
So what is good about fiction in particular?
Fiction offers something that is distinct to its genre in that the world it offers, one way or another, is different from our own. A little deeper into the book, Alan Jacobs recalls seeing a father reading the newly-released Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to his ten-year-old son who “was undergoing something powerful and wonderful; he was lost in a book. . . . The boy was indeed rapt, lost in the story, carried away by the story; . . . And only those who had experienced that complete absorption of the self in something else, something beautiful, know also what it means to have misplaced that capacity.” (86) This is not to say that we should cut ourselves off from the real world in favor of replacing it completely with fiction, but we should rejoice in our ability to dive into a good book of another world or get lost in writing a fantastical story thoughtfully. It’s not a bad thing–in fact it can be a very good thing indeed–to be immersed in a world that is not our own, so long as we do so attentively.
When engaging with pieces of particularly enjoyable fiction, we may have a fear of falling into escapism: of reading and experiencing literature because it offers a world that is so much more exciting and vibrant than the one we actually live in. We might worry that it can leave us wanting that world instead of our own, whether it’s 19th Century rural England, the planet Arrakis, or Platform 9¾. It’s a valid concern, to be sure; we shouldn’t lose interest in the real world and neglect what is right in front of us. However, I believe that giving such a deep level of attention to a book can be a good thing. In our world of screens and text notifications and Instagram stories, how long does anything hold our attention? Jacobs writes, “To pick up a book—to decide to read something, almost anything—is to choose a particular form of attention” (149). Escapism is a scary word, but we can learn to be immersed in a book and enjoy the story without losing our wonder of the real world. Attentiveness is a virtue to be cultivated, and becoming enraptured in the pages of a book is a very good way to do so.
It’s okay to get lost?
In allowing ourselves to become lost in such worlds, fiction can make astounding use of the tool of defamiliarization. Concepts that should never have become ordinary are made sharply consequential for us once again when they’re presented in a fantastic, unfamiliar world. What finally defeats the immortal Lord Voldemort? A boy’s willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends. A mother’s love for her child. We cannot cast a spell to defeat the darkness in our world, but we can live with those virtues. The magical world of witchcraft and wizardry brings the power of sacrifice and love back into focus and to the forefront of our minds where they always should have been.
The Harry Potter books don’t end their saga with a magnificent spell or an overwhelming show of power. They end in an epilogue with something familiar in an unfamiliar world: a father comforting his son, old friends reuniting in joy, and a husband and wife sending their children off to school, filled with expectant hope for their future.
Lesser known, but still relevant, is Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti which follows the path of a young girl from the Himba ethnic group as she attends a prestigious, off-world university deep in space. Binti is the newcomer, the one who doesn’t fit in, the outcast who is trapped among those who do not understand her and the reader is brought right alongside that struggle. How often are these people forgotten in our own world? We desperately want Binti to find her place in the intergalactic university as she traverses the dangers of alien assailants and social life among students from entirely different planets. The novel makes us ask, can we then welcome the strangers in our own midst?
Fiction can remind us of things we have forgotten, things that should never have been buried in the recesses of our childhood memories. It is good to remember what being eleven was like, why we were once entranced with flowers and trees and imaginary games and why the moon was out during the day. It is good to remember a time when the reality of death was new to us, when it just didn’t make sense, before we were desensitized to the violent world around us. I myself was reminded of the value of a childlike perspective, and the true weight of these things in The Book Thief: I don’t think any of us will ever forget little Liesel kissing Rudy for the first and last time all at once. Such stories tug at our heart and remind us of what should be both vitally extraordinary and so very devastating in our own–very real–lives.
Tolkien dazzles us with the incredible world of Middle Earth. We dream of living in the Shire, becoming an elven archer, or charging into battle on the dawn of the fifth day. But amongst all that is fantastical and extraordinary, don’t we all remember one exhausted, beaten-down, steadfast friend saying to another, “Come, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you…but I can carry you and it as well.”
When we write a story set in a world so very different from our own, we can remind the real world of what we wish it would remember, whether it is pain of a personal kind, joy that comes from something people now consider trivial, or a past that should not have been forgotten. And even more than that, in placing these ideas in a work of fiction, we as writers can gain a greater understanding of things we ourselves did not realize until we had to write them into a world remarkably distinct from the one we live in.
These pieces of fiction have the ability to pull at our hearts in a manner that is just as valuable and just as deep as any other genre of literature. As readers and writers, we are given the opportunity to understand ourselves and the parts of the world we have grown numb to in an entirely new light when we write works of fiction. They are powerful, they are meaningful, and they are important.
Why do we suddenly pay attention to sacrificial friendship, the grief of a child, and the power of love? Because when we are able to truly enjoy literature, when we allow ourselves to read and write for its own joy and not for a sense of intellectual obligation, we can truly understand what the story is trying to impart upon us. Because when we fall into a good book with a distinctly unfamiliar, captivating world, sometimes the most extraordinary acts of all are things we have here, in our world: because it’s fiction.