How to Get More Pleasure Out of Your Reading | Alan Jacobs on The Reader’s Journey

Check out The Reader’s Journey Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • If you want a personalized list of book recommendations, you really have to know the person before you can give them a recommendation. It’s difficult to give a good recommendation without knowing someone:
    • “I don’t know what they’ve read before, I don’t know what they left off their list, I don’t know what they started but couldn’t finish…If I don’t have that I can’t really give them a meaningful recommendation.” – Alan Jacobs
  • If you want to find a great book, follow your curiosity:
    • “Learn how to follow your own readerly nose. I think that’s a big problem that people have, they don’t trust their own judgement, they don’t trust their own inclinations.” – Alan Jacobs
  • Books that are masterpieces demand a lot out of a person:
    • “They really force you to give them your very best attention…You can’t do that every day anymore than you could run a marathon every day.” – Alan Jacobs
  • It’s great to read masterpieces, just don’t read only masterpieces:
    • “Don’t try to sustain yourself on a diet of pure masterpieces. Instead, read things that give you delight, read things just for fun and then when you given your mind that opportunity to recuperate a little bit, then go to one of the great masterpieces.” – Alan Jacobs
      • “Read the things that give you simple delight”
  • If you’re reading masterpieces everyday, you aren’t reading them well:
    • “They’re not everyday things. If you’re reading masterpieces every day and that’s all you’re reading, I can guarantee you that you’re not reading them well because a really, really great book will wear you out.” 
  • Speed reading is like speed eating. If you do it, you’ll likely regret it later:
    • “If you are in a real hurry…all you’re going to do is give yourself indigestion and you’ll feel like crap later”Alan Jacobs  

Intro

  • Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University
  • Host: Alex Wieckowski from Alex & Books (@AlexandBooks_)

Books Mentioned

Thoughts on How to Read a Book 

  • Mortimer Alder’s book How to Read a Book is great at teaching people how to get the most out of a book, but it isn’t perfect. It makes reading into a serious activity and encourages readers to only reader “great” books.
    • “For people who are already kind of stressed out about reading then Alder can make you even more stressed out” – Alan Jacobs
      • Alan’s book takes readers in an alternative direction and encourages people to make reading more fun and delightful:
        • “Instead of talking about, how do you read the best books and how do you read them in the best possible way, and how do you make sure you miss nothing, let’s just talk about the pleasures of reading. Let’s talk about why it’s fun.”

The Difficulties of Giving Book Recommendations

  • If you want a list of the “top 100 best books” you can find lists like those all over the internet
  • If you want a personalized list of book recommendations, you really have to know the person before you can give them a recommendation. It’s difficult to give a good recommendation without knowing someone:
    • “I don’t know what they’ve read before, I don’t know what they left off their list, I don’t know what they started but couldn’t finish…If I don’t have that I can’t really give them a meaningful recommendation.” – Alan Jacobs
  • If you want to find a great book, follow your curiosity:
    • “Learn how to follow your own readerly nose. I think that’s a big problem that people have, they don’t trust their own judgement, they don’t trust their own inclinations.” – Alan Jacobs
      • Over time, you’ll get better at know what you like and giving yourself good book recommendations

Why You Shouldn’t Read Just “Great” Books

  • Just like how some people don’t like writing but like to have written, some people don’t like to read books but like to have read books
    • “They want to be able to mark things off their list. They want to be able to say, look I read 75 books this year.” – Alan Jacobs
      • Instead, focus on reading books you enjoy. There’s no such thing as guilty pleasures in reading.
  • Books that are masterpieces demand a lot out of a person:
    • “They really force you to give them your very best attention…You can’t do that every day any more than you could run a marathon every day.” – Alan Jacobs
  • It’s great to read masterpieces, just don’t read only masterpieces:
    • “Don’t try to sustain yourself on a diet of pure masterpieces. Instead, read things that give you delight, read things just for fun and then when you given your mind that opportunity to recuperate a little bit, then go to one of the great masterpieces.” – Alan Jacobs
      • “Read the things that give you simple delight”
  • If you’re reading masterpieces every day, you aren’t reading them well:
    • “They’re not everyday things. If you’re reading masterpieces every day and that’s all you’re reading, I can guarantee you that you’re not reading them well because a really, really great book will wear you out.”   
      • Alan says that if you’re reading a masterpiece like The Brothers Karamazov by Leo Tolstoy, you probably need to take a month off after to fully digest and understand the book

The Benefits of Writing In Your Books

  • If you want to get more out of your books, write in them:
    • “If you really want to understand what you’re reading, then interact with it” – Alan Jacobs
  • Alan’s note-taking method:
    • If he reads something great, he’ll put a star near it
    • If he reads something surprising, he’ll put an exclamation point near it
    • If it’s something he doesn’t understand, he’ll point a question mark near it
  • There are exceptions to writing in a book. If you’re reading a fiction book, you may want to not take notes because it will disrupt the flow of the story.
    • Alan tends to have two copies of books, one that he annotates for teaching and one that he doesn’t write in so that he can read it without any distractions

Why You May Want To Get A Kindle

  • Alan enjoys reading on a Kindle, because it’s physically similar to a phone but isn’t as distracting. It also has side lighting so it’s easier on your eyes than other devices.
    • “I liked my Kindle because it gave me something to do with my thumbs” – Alan Jacob
      • It also helped him concentrate on reading:
        • “I found that it helped me to get my concentration back. I really owe that to the Kindle. I got back in the habit of sitting and reading for an extended period of time.”  
          • If you read a lot of books that you don’t want to annotate, Alan recommends using a Kindle
  • A cool perk of the Kindle is that you can export all of your highlighted text
  • However, Kindles aren’t great for teaching. You can’t hold down one page and flip to another page at the same time as you could easily do with a print book.
  • Each book medium (print, ebook, audiobook) has their own set of pros and cons
    • If you’re going on vacation, you probably want to carry a Kindle instead of a backpack filled with books
    • If you’re in class, it’s easier to flip back and forth with a print book than other mediums

The Truth About Speed Reading

  • Speed reading doesn’t work:
    • “Speed reading just doesn’t work. There have been lots and lots of studies about it and it just doesn’t work.” – Alan Jacobs
  • However, there are reading techniques you can apply to speed understand books:
    • One strategy is to read the introduction and conclusion of a book. Then go to chapter one and read the first and last paragraph. Then repeat for each chapter until you finish the book.
      • “But that only works for certain kinds of books…you can’t read novels that way, you just can’t. You won’t know what happened.”Alan Jacobs
        • “There’s not really a shortcut method to reading novels, there isn’t. They’re meant to be read sequentially.”  
  • If you just want to have read a book, find a summary of it online:
    • “If all you want is just to have read, you know, go to Sparknotes” – Alan Jacobs
  • Speed reading is like speed eating. If you can to do it you’ll likely regret it later:
    • “If you are in a real hurry…all you’re going to do is give yourself indigestion and you’ll feel like crap later”Alan Jacobs  

The Benefit of Rereading Books

  • When you reread a book, you can find new lessons you missed the first time:
    • Alan first read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy for the first time when he was in grad school. When he reread 15 years later, one of the passages struck him like a ton of bricks.
      • “Like the whole structure of the novel seemed to change for me because of the different phase of life I was in” – Alan Jacob
  • Just like how no man steps in the same river twice, no man reads the same book twice

Alan’s Favorite Books

  • Two books that had a huge influence on Alan:
    • Middlemarch by George Elliot
      • “I think it’s the greatest novel in the English language” – Alan Jacobs
    • The Dyer’s Hand by W.H. Auden
      • After reading Auden’s poetry, Alan decided he wanted to spend his life studying poetry. Alan has edited three of Auden’s books.
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Notes By Alex Wiec

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