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Alan Jacobs, the author of this book is an English Professor at Wheaton College, Illinois. Given his position as a professor, his students and other people often ask him, “What are the 10 best books on literature that every educated person must read", "Dear Prof, Can you suggest some books to read this summer?", This book is written to answer all such questions. So one might think this book is basically a recommendation type / instructional / didactic guide to reading. Far from it, this 150 page long essay on reading at Whim, with no fixed pattern, with only one objective in mind, "Pleasure".

The book starts off with the author noticing that many people including his son are put off by books such as, “How to Read a Book?”,How to Read Literature like a Professor ?” , “ The New Lifetime Reading Plan” , etc. The premise behind all these kind of books is that reading needs to be systematically carried out and there are certain books that need to be read to appreciate and become good at understanding literature. Most of these books smell of Responsibility, Obligation and Virtue, the very attributes that make people make run away from reading. So, he says, reading needs a model that works, i.e "Read at Whim". The people who look out for such "10 best books to read" recommendations actually don’t really want to read a book, but want to check things off from a mental bucket list. They want to say,“Yes, now I am done with this book”. Reading at Whim means reading something that gives you pleasure,i.e there is nobody that we are signaling to , nobody that we are trying to impress.It is really out of pure enthusiasm that one reads. One usually sees this in children when you give them a book. They read it for the pure joy of it. There are tons of authors out there who feel that reading must not be frivolous, meaning, Harry Potter is not serious book, in their opinion. In fact they have this assumed checklist of books that,`Ought to be read’ by a serious reader. The author states that this model is broken, and says, "Read at Whim" should be the new model.

Ok, fine. You should read at Whim, So pick up whatever you feel like reading and the one that you think will give you pleasure. Done deal. 20 pages in to the book, the author makes this abundantly clear.So, Is there any point in going over the 130 odd pages in the book ?

Well, the rest of the book is NOT reiterating this message over and over again. `Reading at Whim’ is the foundation of the model that the author talks about in the book. If this were the only principle that we follow, soon we will be facing with situations as these

  • Let’s say you like Jane Austen novels and you get joy/pleasure reading her words. However you soon hit a limit. She wrote only six novels. So, once you read these books, you would want to go back and read these books again. But,as we all know, too many rereading squeezed into too narrow a time frame will drain the books’ power and leave them forever inert on the shelves. So you face this Law of Diminishing returns when all you want to read are a few select books.
  • Let’s say you like Lord of Rings and really loved reading it. Soon, you might start reading books that carry stories similar to Lord of Rings.Given the amount of books published in a year, it is certain that there will be enough imitators of hits. You might get frustrated reading those books as they fail to match up to the original. You might accept them for what they are, imitators of the original and keep reading. The second behavior can be dangerous as you might start accepting plots less clever, characters less vivid, prose less dynamic and thoughts less insightful.

So, you see reading at Whim can take us only so far. In this context, the author talks about the second element of the model, i.e self-knowledge and discernment. These are crucial to develop while reading. These will help you chuck the books midway, if you think prodding through the text doesn’t give you pleasure. This also makes you aware of your tastes and preferences. “ Self-knowledge and Discernment” are precisely the things that you will not develop if you tend to follow somebody else’s recommendations, maintain a list of books to be read, etc.

“How to Read a Book” and similar guides offload accountability for our reading: they say, implicitly, that self-knowledge and discernment aren’t needful because experts can take care of that for us. But if we reject that implicit claim, the next question that needs to be addressed is,“ How to move from `blind propensity’ to `informed consent’ to `Whim’s sovereignty’ ” ? One of the suggestions by the author is to “Read Upstream”, i.e read books that your favorite authors have read as they give a peek in to your favorite books’ characters, plots and imagination. This kind of upstream reading is also useful in math. You might come across a good application of a technique, but if you read upstream you might get to read all the trials and tribulations that went behind the technique etc. For example,Baire’s failure in categorizing functions helped Lebesgue in defining measurable and non-measurable functions. If you read ONLY about Lebesgue and don’t look in to the development made by Baire, you are likely to miss a lot of action. Reading upstream need not be only be about historical developments behind a technique. It might be about things that make you wonder, curious about life in general. If you look at Cantor’s math and read about the Cantor’s life, what shaped his ideas about infinite infinities, What drove him mad, what made him die alone in an asylum, What made his story tragic but his achievements a mathematical breakthrough, you will forever look upon George Cantor in a completely different light.

The author then makes a strong case for annotating the text/ reading with a pencil. By turning our passive reading style in to an active one, the book tends to offer more than what it might seem in the beginning. There is also warning against highlighting, as Highlighters allow you very quickly and easily to mark a text, but only by covering it with a bright color; and the very quickness and easiness of the process are inimical to the kind of active reading that is needed. This point is similar to Dr.Medina’s finding mentioned in his book Brain Rules. By making the initial contact about an idea/phrase/character more elaborate , it is likely that one remembers better. By reading fast we miss on the opportunity of elaborate encoding. Obviously this does not apply to every book. One should not read Harry Potter with a pencil , such books are good when the reader goes with the momentum, the less stoppages the better. This means that as a reader, the decision to annotate or go with the flow of the book is important.

Reading Slowly is the next aspect that author focuses on. Most of us read fast because of the implicit thought that “ Time is too short to read all the books”. Yes time IS short, but one crucial aspect that gets neglected by making reading . `a race’ ,is, “Books become better when they are reread. Unless you annotate , read slowly, your re-read would be equivalent to a new read". Reading fast – It’s like you have the content uploaded in your working memory, feel good about it, check off that item from the list, move on to the next book." Considering the short term nature of working memory, its like all the content is in RAM. Once the application shuts off, RAM is erased. If you want the stuff to get stored in long term memory, you have to read slowly, annotate and MOST IMPORTANT part is to re-read. Whenever you have the urge to read a set of blogs / books in quick succession, pause and ask yourself, “ Do you want to read’ ? ” or “Do you want to have read ?”. An honest answer will keep you off the speed track.

Via a Poem from W.H.Auden, the author makes a case for `eye-on-the-object’ look that is needed for getting pleasure from a book, i.e we must cultivate attention while reading. We need to be attentive of words , phrases, characters, etc. so that we can lose ourselves in the process of reading. The poem mentioned in this context is very beautiful and goes like this,

You need not see what someone is doing to know if it is his vocation.

You have only to watch his eyes; a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision, a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression, forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is, that eye-on-the-object look.

There is a section that talks about a 12th century Abbot, Hugh’s advice to his monks. Even though it belongs to advice centuries ago, it is equally relevant for people whose motives for reading are far from monastic. Hugh’s advice on humility is relevant to the book as it says the reader should keep in mind three aspects,

  • Hold no knowledge or writing whatsoever in contempt
  • Should not blush to learn from any man
  • When he has attained learning himself, he not look down upon anyone else.

These lessons mean that one should not only be attentive to what one studies, but also positively disposed towards it: friendly,even affectionate.

Amidst all this discussion about reading, the author takes a radical view point , i.e Schools can never teach students to deep-read. Irrespective of which class a student is in, there is always this feeling that, ` I will be graded’ lurking in his mind. So, the kind of attentiveness that is proper to school is more of `hyper attention’ than `deep attention’. Look at any kids curriculum, you will amazed at the QUANTITY that is covered as a part of syllabus. With grades and the competitive pressure, Can a student deep-read ? No , says the author as reading textbooks and the like-does not require extended unbroken focus. It requires discipline not raptness.I don’t agree to this point. Yes, a student probably can’t deep-read all subjects but I think focusing on a few subjects and understanding them really well, might be better than knowing a bit about all the subjects. Yes, the student might fall behind on the average grade across subjects, but he will graduate from a school or a college with a better frame of mind. However looking at the way the educational system in India, I think the author might be right as LOT is taught and tested from the young minds that there is no choice but to cram.

One of the most important points that I found relevant to my reading habits is : Reread. I tend to read math /stats books a lot and I find it imperative to reread them.Well, one aspect of summarizing and posting them to a blog is that, these summaries serve as a starting point when I reread a book. The author makes a strong case for reading and I quote the author ,

If most of us read too fast, most of us also read too many books and are unwisely reluctant to return to something we think we already know. I use "think" here advisedly, because , as my examples show, a first encounter with a worthwhile book is never a complete encounter and we are usually in error to make it a final one. But those who want to have read, who are checking books off their bucket list , will find the thought of rereading even more repulsive than the thought of reading slowly and ruminatively. And yet rereading a book can often be a more significant dramatic and new experience than encountering an unfamiliar work

This visual broadly gives the structure.model explained in the book

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imageTakeaway :

We usually read for information or understanding or entertainment. Dismissing all the so called expert recommendations that one receives on reading, the book has one central message , "Read at Whim". It warns the reader from making reading in to a ‘have read’ activity.

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