A Natural Worshiper of Serendipity and Whim: Alan Jacobs’ “Pleasures of Reading”

Alan Jacobs, who readers of this blog (all ten of you) may know from previous references to his excellent blog TextPatterns, has recently released a wonderful book about reading that I simply can’t recommend highly enough. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is just the sort of pithy, sympathetic tract that our times demand — it encourages bibliographic exploration, celebrates chance literary encounters, while offering sincere understanding for the would-be “well-read” among us who fear missing out on an overly massive menu of “great works.”

Those chance literary encounters are the subject of this passage, which I found so delightful and even moving, that I thought I’d share it here.

The cultivation of serendipity is an option for anyone, but for people living in conditions of prosperity and security and informational richness it is something vital. To practice “accidental sagacity” is to recognize that I don’t really know where I am going, even if I like to think I do, or think Google does; that if I know what I am looking for, I do not therefore know what I need; that I am not master of my destiny and captain of my fate; that it is probably a very good thing that I am not master of my destiny and captain of my fate. An accidental sagacity may be the form of wisdom I most need, but am least likely to find without eager pursuit. Moreover, serendipity is the near relation of Whim; each stands against the Plan. Plan once appealed to me, but I have grown to be a natural worshiper of Serendipity and Whim; I can try to serve other gods, but my heart is never in it. I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan. And why not? After all, once upon a time we chose none of our reading: it all came to us unbidden, unanticipated, unknown, and from the hand of someone who loved us.

As the daddy of a toddler who absolutely loves to be read to, this strikes a chord. Jacobs reminds us that just as we trusted our parents to bring the world of words to us when we could not yet even speak sentences, so we can, as adults, allow the myriad chaotic forces around us to drop texts in our path, and accept them as they come, rather than worry over the time not spent on things we feel we are “supposed to” read.

Jacobs, incidentally, also confirms my feelings about the benefits of dedicated ereaders such as the Kindle. Particularly at this time in our technological lives when so many other gizmos promise to inundate us with all manner of simultaneous stimuli, Jacobs recognizes that this gizmo can help to cleanse the palate and provide oasis.

… people who know what it is like to be lost in a book, who value that experience, but who have misplaced it … They’re the ones who need help, and want it, and are prepared to receive it. I had become one of those people myself, or was well on my way to it, when I was rescued through the novelty of reading on a Kindle. My hyper-attentive habits were alienating me further and further from the much older and (one would have thought) more firmly established habits of deep attention. I was rapidly becoming a victim of my own mind’s plasticity, until a new technology helped me to remember how to do something that for years had been instinctive, unconscious, natural. I don’t know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention—who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight—can learn how. But I’m confident that anyone who has ever had this facility can recover it: they just have to want that recovery enough to make sacrifices for it, something they will only do if they can vividly recall what that experience was like.

So beyond Jacobs’ excellent prose and insight, perhaps one of the things that recommends this book to me so strongly is validation. I can live with that.

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