It’s not that Johnny can’t read. It’s just that he doesn’t want to - at least not any more than necessary. And is that such a crime?
Such, in essence, is the provocative thesis with which Alan Jacobs scandalized the American academy last July when he published an article titled “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading” in the academic trade journal the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Near universal literacy is one thing, serious reading quite another, argued Mr. Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, a small Christian liberal arts institution in Illinois. We ought to invest resources in teaching literacy and let reading more or less take care of itself.
“While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to,” he asserted. This obvious fact had been, he explained, “obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college.” The distortion was made worse by the expansion of modern literature faculties at universities, such as the one that cuts Mr. Jacobs’ paychecks.
The post-World War II GI Bill created unrealistic and ultimately unsustainable expectations, the Wheaton professor argued. “From 1945 to 2000, or thereabouts, far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books,” he wrote. The mass public tried serious reading but ultimately, and rightly in Mr. Jacobs’ view, threw in the towel.
What we are seeing now is, as he put it, “reading returning to its former social base.” Those who want to read will, and those who don’t won’t bother to put in the effort just to avoid the judgment of others. Serious readers won’t wither away to nothing, but they will, for the foreseeable future, be limited to a decided minority.
The essay was surprising for what it didn’t do. Unlike most entries in the Why Johnny Can’t Read genre, it refused to treat the shrinking of Americans’ literary ambitions as a crisis. Rather than propose remedies for a nonexistent problem, Mr. Jacobs urged instead that universities face facts - colleges in the U.S. are full of people who are not that into reading - and adapt by cutting the size of their literature faculties accordingly.
Formal education, he wrote, “is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about … skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”
Scholar of comics Lee Konstantinou had a run at the essay online in the Stanford Arcade.
“In an era where universities are seeking new ways to justify slashing and burning the humanities, Jacobs provides fresh ammunition to administrators,” he charged. “Why fund literature departments if they, at best, have no effect on literary appreciation or at worst actively inculcate shame and fear in potential readers by making reading a pill?”
Mr. Konstantinou and many other critics raised all sorts of methodological quibbles with the essay, but there seemed to be a gnawing sense among professors that perhaps Mr. Jacobs was onto something. On the science website Big Think, Austin Allen prefaced his objections by admitting, “[A]s a teacher at the very beginning of his career, I’m aware of the risk of sounding naive here - years from now I might be staring hollow-eyed into a beer mug, whispering, ‘Jacobs was right.’ “
This year, Mr. Jacobs followed his Chronicle essay with a book about what we ought to read in our leisure hours, “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” (Oxford University Press). He proves no less contrary this time than he did in his first thrust. Our professor says people are always asking him to compile a list for them of books that they simply must read. “I never comply with these requests,” he writes.
He refuses to provide a list because his philosophy of reading is antithetical to the more conventional “canonical” approach. Canonists say you should read a predetermined core of books that will make you a more historically conscious, virtuous, well-rounded person. He says nuts to that: Give him Shakespeare, Stephen King, G.K. Chesterton and an Orson Scott Card paperback.
Mr. Jacobs counters the canonical approach with his “commitment to one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading” - the description of which alone would have driven Ayn Rand around the bend: “Read at Whim.” Read because it brings you “pleasure and joy,” not because it brings you intelligence, moral certitude or increased social standing.
“The Pleasures of Reading” has villains, thank goodness, who help keep things interesting. Mr. Jacobs, a C.S. Lewis biographer, borrows Lewis’ description of a certain type of critic as “the vigilant school.” These are critics who “convince others that they are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts.”
Mr. Jacobs counts the late great-books evangelist Mortimer Adler among the vigilant but at least has the occasional kind word to say about the man who put the classics in millions of American homes. After all, what Adler meant for betterment some might experience as joy.
Harold Bloom doesn’t get off so easy. The renowned Yale Shakespearean comes in for extended criticism for his pomposity and censoriousness. His book “How to Read and Why” really ought to have been titled “What to Read and What to Think About It,” Mr. Jacobs quips, for “the advice of the book as a whole is simply ‘Do as I say and do as I do.’ ” And though Mr. Bloom may not “have his own version of the Catholic Church’s Index on Prohibited Books, he can certainly sound like he does,” Mr. Jacobs jabs.
Mr. Bloom, for example, took the popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels to be a definitive “indictment of the world’s descent into subliteracy.” He said on the “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” that readers of Harry Potter novels are “not really [reading]. Their eyes are passing over a page. They are turning the page. Their minds are being numbed by cliche. No demands are being made upon them. Nothing … nothing is happening to them.”
This sort of criticism from the vigilant school can have one of two effects upon readers, Mr. Jacobs argues. It can affirm them in their own superior virtue because they have had the good taste to pass over such unworthy books. Or it can “terrify them” - and you can guess how that is likely to affect their long-term reading habits.
It’s instructive to contrast the tone of Mr. Jacobs’ original essay with the book it inspired. In the book, the provocateur of the essay becomes much more boosterish, undeterred from championing the cause, however quixotic, of serious reading with surprising suggestions, such as his endorsement of e-readers as a way to help rewire our easily distracted brains back toward habits of sustained attentiveness.
Mr. Jacobs still holds to the idea that serious readers will be in the minority for a long time to come, likely forever, but even so, he closes his book, hopefully, with a wish: “May our tribe increase.” Here’s hoping his unorthodox advice for reading contributes to that increase.
• Jeremy Lott, editor of Real Clear Books, is writing a book about death.