I recently finished an essay by Alan Jacobs entitled, “How to Read a Book.” With a title like that, you would expect a few references to Mortimer Adler, but there were none. Nonetheless, it was an outstanding essay. Keep in mind that I measure outstanding by the extent to which it provides me with intellectual vistas, the opportunity to see something substantive with new eyes, where I find myself mouthing the word “Wow!” as I read it.
It doesn’t hurt to start your essay with a quote from a classic and then to provide a context that the reader rarely or never considered before. In this case, it was a quote from Francic Bacon’s Of Studies.
“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.”
Jacobs followed this quote by explaining that Bacon’s quote was part of his advice to young people who were studying amid an influx of access to information unlike any other era in history, made possible by the printing press. With that technology came mass paper-texts that exceeded the the consumption power of the voracious 16th century bibliophile. Living in our current age, one hardly needs to point out the obvious parallel.
Setting the stage with this point, Jacobs goes on to give four pieces of advice to the modern reader. To get the most out of a book, one must practice discernment, attentiveness, responsiveness, and charity. You are welcome to read the entire essay yourself (although you’ll need to buy the book in order reach his chapter / essay), but I want to focus upon a single point related to the second of these four, attentiveness.
By attentiveness, Jacobs makes a solid case for the importance of cultivating the ability to concentrate on a single text, but he does so in a distinct if not unique way. In a world of switch-tasking, multi-tasking and the barrage of new messages across media, his point is well taken; but it is also not a new message. This is a common (albeit important) warning and word of advice for life in the digital age. What is distinct about Jacobs’s approach to the subject is that he defended the importance of attentiveness in reading a text by connecting it with the notion of loving your neighbor. In this case, the book (or the author of the book) is the neighbor. Jacobs casts a vision for reading that is deeply personal, relational, even spiritual. How do you love your neighbor when reading a book? For Jacobs, this means listening, attending to the words and message of the text. Toward that end, Jacobs argues that, “Attentiveness is an ethical as well as an intellectual matter; it’s about treating our neighbors as they deserve as much as it’s about getting facts into our heads.”