In most love stories, a man pursuing a woman is depicted as gallant, noble, and deeply romantic. When a woman pursues a man, we call her “crazy,” “obsessed,” and “unstable.” Why one gender is gallant and the other nutso, I’m not sure, but one thing is clear: the female gone mad with love makes for one hell of an unconventional narrative — or as William Congreve put it in The Mourning Bride, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” And when that scorn can manifest in emails, comments, and digital subterfuge, the girlish chase becomes a sinister manhunt.
In James Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, we get a story half crime procedural, half memoir of attack. Lasdun’s story focused on how his reputation was systematically destroyed by a former writing student called “Nasreen.” Lasdun sees her writing, exploring themes of Iranian and American love, as a sign of true talent, and he genuinely supports her work. Nasreen graduates, two years go by, and Lasdun receives her email asking for help in securing a literary agent — an initial overture that soon turns more personal and romantically suggestive. When Lasdun gently declines her advances, Nasreen’s emails accuse him of student favoritism, then sexual harassment and assault, then racism, then full-blown plagiarism and criminal activity. When Lasdun declines to answer her emails, Nasreen incorporates her threats into everything from Amazon reader comments to university review boards, spreading her anti-semitic, tawdry comments to all of Lasdun’s friends and colleagues. Soon she infiltrates every part of his life, spreading lies and gossip and threatening to expose “the truth” behind his web of lies.
As Lasdun noted in his recent interview with The Millions, this book was “written right from the thick of the experience,” and the immediacy of the tale’s telling imbues each detail with a palpable sense of dread. Lasdun builds plenty of suspense and momentum — not only as each blistering attack lands, but also as Nasreen’s motivation remains indecipherable. The glimpse of their real-life interaction is extremely brief — in person, she is demure, even appreciative of his time. It is only when the firsthand communication disappears, and they transfer their relationship to email, that lines become blurred and the power dynamic begins to shift. When Nasreen coyly insinuates that Lasdun had snapped at her in class (a lover’s quarrel, in her mind), Lasdun is equally coy in his response. “Are you sure I didn’t just push you to declare an opinion on something? (I remember you being rather reticent.)” He then adds, semi-prophetically, “As George Eliot said, the last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people.” Nasreen’s early impressions of him become Lasdun’s downfall, and he is sent reeling by how easily she insinuates herself into his life — at work, at home, and in his online likeness (impersonating him on various websites, sending racist and sexist articles using his email address). If, as noted in his Millions interview, this is the story of “two novelists who are, in different ways, trying to create each other as characters,” Nasreen’s greatest crime is becoming too powerful an author. “One has no control over the use other people make of one’s image or the sound of one’s voice or any other outward manifestation of oneself,” Lasdun writes, as he finds himself a character rather than the captain of his own story. She has hijacked his very sense of self. “Life, death, honor, reputation. Such, at this point, are the terms and stakes of the challenge.”
However, in order to paint Nasreen as a mad woman with a powerful grudge, Lasdun takes an unnecessarily dry and impersonal tone, using supplementary texts on the nature of obsession to further his case. (On his reading list: Tintin — the books with Arab villains, natch — Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, D.H. Lawrence’s personal biography, or Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Perhaps we should give Lasdun credit for not citing Fatal Attraction and Sunset Boulevard.) As he goes into his analysis, painting Nasreen as a stalker and himself as a heroic naïf, the more he starts to sound like Humbert Humbert, more complicit than innocent, more culpable than defensible. There are moments where his humility cannot help but sound like a humblebrag: “I want to know what she thinks she is doing. [ . . . ] What happened—between us, or to her alone — to make my unremarkable existence matter so much to her?” He does acknowledge that in trying to write this story, his motivation is as cloudy as Nasreen’s:
I have a strong vested interest, after all, in claiming that Nasreen was fundamentally sane. I want to hold her responsible for her behavior. [ . . . ] But I also have to admit that if I didn’t, I would probably feel uncomfortable writing about her. Uncomfortable not only from a personal point of view but also from a litery one.
Heaven forbid that Lasdun’s literary ethics be violated in depicting the actual truth — perhaps this is the problem when the author is also the main character. In trying to mount a self-defense, Lasdun’s case rests on giving Nasreen full agency — an impossibility, given that throughout her attacks, he never once confronts her directly. “I wasn’t thinking about the effect of my not answering,” Lasdun noted in his interview, “[nor] the effects of silence on someone who is obsessed with you.” Incidental or not, Lasdun’s silence allows him to be the “bigger guy” in this scenario, and so his descriptions of Nasreen are anything but empowering: he compares her to a groundhog, “defiantly present in my garden every morning.” In the final section, set during a trip to Israel, Lasdun tries to provide a global context for Nasreen’s behavior, and in doing so overly simplifies her crimes to a simple clash of cultures. (Comparing Nasreen’s missives to the Wailing Wall is even more grating.) In the very act of writing down his “side of the story,” Lasdun denies us the chance to cross-examine him.
So what did really happen? Yes, Lasdun was pursued; yes, he was attacked; yes, he remains wary of Nasreen’s next move even today; and yes — he will continue to represent himself as victim even as he promotes this book. It’s a pity that while so many stories of female victimization (sexual and otherwise) are grouped into the “women and gender studies” category, Lasdun may sit front and center on the “New in Nonfiction” table . . . a categorization that only holds up as well as you can believe that a one-sided story can be taken as irrevocable truth. Lasdun himself does express doubts at the very writing of this story: “It is a recurrent anxiety of mine, this fear of irrelevance, and I have no argument against it other than [ . . . ] that sometimes the urge to write these very private things is stronger than the doubts about whether they are worth writing.” Only Lasdun can tell us whether the story was worth it — the bigger question, the one that snakes itself to the front of my mind at each line of flowery recrimination, is whether Lasdun should’ve taken his story public. “Was I am objective, impartial observer, a purely neutral participant in those early months of our exchange?” he asks, and then answers: “I was not. Nobody ever is.” And so I wonder, as the praise-laden reviews roll out, if a certain former student is clicking onto Amazon and Goodreads and slowly, methodically, conducting her own self-defense.
The first time I ever heard of Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians was in a comment posted on Twitter. I follow a lot of avid (even rabid) readers, and one of them had, apparently, stepped out of their comfort zone to give this book a try. She had decided to follow the crowd and read this novel that was being called “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” She was not a fan. She called it a rip-off and accused Grossman of stealing from her beloved J.K. Rowling. Her response was so strong, so passionate, that my curiosity was piqued.
I looked up Grossman to see what he had done before. It turns out that he knows something about good writing. Grossman is the lead book critic for Time and has made a career out of both praising the efforts of writers who take risks and calling out those who he felt were overrated. He knew that he was entering dangerous territory when he set about writing a book that bears even a passing resemblance to anything as recognizable as the Harry Potter franchise. It was a big risk to take, but it has paid off, as evidenced by the The Magicians’ bestseller status.
The anticipation for his follow-up, The Magician King, has been building all summer, with some readers looking to it to fill the void left by the final Harry Potter film. It is well-suited to the task. Like The Magicians before it, the book is a collection of carefully chosen allusions to the books that have influenced Grossman as a writer. While these allusions were off-putting to some readers, they are a large part of the appeal for the readers who grew up reading the same books he did. I have to admit; each new reference that I stumbled across made me smile a little wider and drew me in a little further.
After seeing the wide-range of responses that the book has received, I found myself hoping that responses like the ones that first caught my attention were in the minority. Grossman has assured me they were.
The Millions: What sort of comments have you had regarding the many literary allusions that are found throughout The Magicians?
Lev Grossman: There have been fewer than you would think. There was a lot of focus on it before the book came out, which was worrying. Publishers Weekly dismissed the book as “derivative.” Viking’s own lawyers delayed the book’s publication – they demanded rewrites to make clearer the differences between Fillory and Narnia. But following publication almost all the readers and critics I heard from have read the similarities correctly, as allusions rather than theft. People like them – they like the fact that they’ve read the same books I have. It’s a way of recognizing our shared culture.
TM: Has anyone ever questioned you about similarities that they saw between what you wrote and another book? What did they point to, and how did you respond?
LG: I’ve seen it here and there, in blog comments and Amazon reviews – people harping on the Harry Potter allusions. But it’s a very small minority. Early on I toured the Harry Potter conventions, talking about what I was doing and the spirit in which it was intended, to try to get the word out. I think that helped. But when people do think you’ve plagiarized from another writer, rather than alluded to them, the reaction is extreme. They get angry. It’s a dangerous game; you have to get it right. Allusions can be very polarizing.
TM: As you wrote the novel, were you aware of your inspirations? How did you keep them from overtaking your story? How did you keep from crossing the line?
LG: I think I’m more aware of my influences than some writers – maybe it’s my training as an academic, but I look for them: Rowling and Lewis, obviously, but also writers like Ursula Le Guin, Neal Stephenson, Waugh, Hemingway. In truth, it’s difficult sometimes to know where the line is, to avoid getting overpowered by a strong influence. But it’s also energizing. I think Harold Bloom was right in Anxiety of Influence: some writers need to feel like they’ve gone to war with their literary progenitors, then made their peace with them.
TM: One of the criticisms that I have seen regarding the allusions in the text is that so many of the references (Gulliver’s Travels aside) are to relatively recent works. The expectation is to see mythology or Shakespeare or some other “classic.” Are the modern references lost on readers? Does it make a difference?
LG: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how allusions to contemporary works have a different resonance than references to “classic” literature. They’re certainly not lost on readers, but they can sound a bit cheap and hollow. It’s a difficult line to walk – you want your characters to live in a realistic version of the contemporary cultural environment you see around you, but if you get too specific with your references, they can take on that gimmicky quality. And they date rapidly. I spent a lot of time and effort fine-tuning the allusions in The Magicians, to get the right balance.
TM: If you had to explain the difference between alluding to another work and copying that work to a classroom full of students, how would you go about it? What sort of examples would you use? Would you refer to your own writing?
LG: The key, to me, is making it clear to the reader that you’re borrowing another writer’s elements for a reason. You have to make sure they know not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. It can be confusing for a writer. Initially when I would make allusions to C.S. Lewis, I would avoid overtly criticizing or satirizing Lewis’s work, out of respect, and a worry that I would outrage Narnia fans. I quickly realized that the danger isn’t going too far, it’s not going far enough. If you’re going to borrow from Lewis, you have to travesty him, openly poke fun at him, say something about him. Anything less and readers will see your allusions as merely plagiarism.
TM: What is your favorite literary reference in the novel? Do people pick up on it?
LG: The Magicians is a web of allusions – they’re thicker than most people realize, and nobody gets them all (even me, probably). One of my favorite sequences in the book has Quentin and his friends turning into geese and flying south to Antarctica. This is an allusion to one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite novels, The Once and Future King, in which a young King Arthur is changed into a goose by Merlin as part of his education. I thought it stuck out by a mile when I wrote it, but surprisingly few people catch it.
TM: What references have others pointed out to you or asked about?
LG: People most often point out the more obscure references – it’s a good feeling when you pick up on a reference to something that’s really arcane, that you know hardly anybody else is going to spot. Cellists sometimes write to me about the Popper exercises that the characters at Brakebills have to do. They’re a reference to a famous book of cello etudes that I tried, and failed, to master during my brief career as a cellist. It’s something I put in there for myself, really, but when people spot it, it makes them happy.
TM: Were there any new influences that you were aware of as you wrote The Magician King? What should readers be watching for as they read?
LG: The Magician King’s ancestry is a little different from that of The Magicians, so it draws from a somewhat – but not entirely – different palette of references. It’s a book about journeys and quests, so there are allusions to T.H. White’s and Malory’s accounts of the Quest for the Holy Grail, and to The Odyssey and The Aeneid as well. It’s also a little more of a mystery than The Magicians was, so there are nods – there’s one in the first paragraph – to Raymond Chandler. But the most consistent presence is still C.S. Lewis, in particular Lewis’s own take on the epic, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Grossman has put together A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians for Tor.com. It paints a pretty interesting picture of the world that Grossman lives in and the one he has created. The Magician King is full of the same pop-culture references and allusions to the works of Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and George R.R. Martin as The Magicians. Some are a bit more direct, such as Quentin referring to Janet as “Fillory Clinton.” They are also more time sensitive.
What The Magician King has that was a bit lacking in the first is a rich undercurrent of mythology and folklore. When searching for the root of all magic, it only makes sense that they turn to the “old gods,” an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. They are the ones who harnessed the magic that gave rise to Fillory, and, it would seem, they are none too happy that it has fallen into mortal hands. Here are a few of the less modern references from Grossman’s new book The Magician King:
p. 8: “Good luck,” Julia said. “Dryads fight. Their skin is like wood. And they have staves.”
“I’ve never seen a dryad fight,” Quentin said.
“That is because nobody is stupid enough to fight one.”
In Greek Mythology, the dryads are tree nymphs most closely associated with oak trees. They appear extensively throughout literature, typically as shy creatures who keep to themselves. It is C.S. Lewis who made them fighters, putting them alongside Aslan and the Pevensie children.
p. 22: “Et in Arcadia ego.”
A Latin phrase, meaning “I too was there in Arcadia.” It was meant as a memento mori, or a reminder of one’s own mortality. Here, Quentin is remembering that Alice’s death was not then end of the darkness that exists in Fillory.
p. 101: “They straggled to a stop in front of it, a brave company of knights assembled before the Chapel Perilous.”
The Chapel Perilous first appears in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It is where Sir Lancelot fends off the advances of the sorceress Hellawes. This is just one of many Arthurian references throughout the novel, though it is the least direct.
p. 182: “At the end of the poem, hadn’t he run to the Goat (by which he meant the constellation Capricorn, a footnote gallantly informed her) to find New Love? Or was it lust?”
Julia is referring to John Donne and his poem “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucies Day.” By the end of the poem, Donne has decided to move on, just as Julia decides to leave magic behind for good.
p. 185: ViciousCirce and Asmodeus
The screen names of Julia and one of the other members of Free Traders Beowulf (a reference to the sci-fi role-playing game Traveller). ViciousCirce is a refrence to Circe, a minor goddess of magic in Greek mythology who plays an important role in The Odyssey. Asmodeus is the king of demons, mentioned in The Book of Tobit. Julia is very surprised to find the person behind the screen name is a 17 year old girl.
p. 321: Reynard the Fox
A European trickster figure from medieval times, Reynard is described by Grossman as “some kind of anti-gentry, anti-clerical hero of the peasantry.” There are references to Reynard in both The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
p. 338: “Benedict is in the underworld. He is not a ghost. He is a shade.”
A shade, in various mythologies, refers to the spirit of someone that is residing in the Underworld. Quentin is sent to visit Benedict there, making a trip similar to the one Aeneas makes to visit his father in The Aeneid.
The Magicians is very much a product of the world that Grossman grew up in and the type of life he led. Geeks everywhere could find something to identify with in that book, be it Harry Potter or Advanced D&D. The Magician King appeals to a wider audience, bringing the old and the new together, and creating a whole new mythology.
I’ve been miserably, neurotically obsessed with becoming well-read for so long now that I sometimes hope I’ll get over my obsession simply out of boredom. Bookstores make me panic; they’re just collections of shiny reminders of everything I have not and will likely never read. Friends’ bookshelves, though they deviously keep secret which volumes have actually been finished, or for that matter opened, can ruin an otherwise fun party, leading me to wonder why I’m wasting my time engaged in the kind of idle chatter lamented by Heidegger, so I’ve heard, in the book I’m staring at, rather than spending that very hour pursuing the goal of finally reading enough so that I can stop flagellating myself and maybe go out and enjoy myself at parties. A conversation with a colleague about the virtues of a handful of lesser-known works by a semi-obscure author, whom my colleague happened to re-read recently can precipitate a despair that lasts for days, during which I will try again vainly to increase my page per hour count, a numerical value that I will abstain from revealing here, because it’s just too depressing. All of which is to say that Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is designed for me, for people who are as interested in “having read” books as they are in reading books; it is designed in fact to cure my illness. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have succeeded.
Jacobs positions himself as the heir to cultural authorities like Mortimer Adler, Charles van Doren, and Harold Bloom, who have sought to teach regular Americans how to appreciate literature, but he believes that his predecessors present reading as too much of a duty. Reading literature, Jacobs argues, ought to be a profoundly pleasurable activity, one we engage in primarily for the sake of enjoyment, and not out of obligation. We’d be happier, better readers if we stopped obsessing about what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, and what we haven’t read. We should let whim, rather than guilt or shame, propel our reading choices. Though he is a literature professor at Wheaton College, Jacobs acknowledges that universities are largely to blame for encouraging individuals to treat reading as a chore, valuable only insofar as it serves a higher purpose. But, as Jacobs contends in one of the book’s most honest moments, reading is not a virtuous activity, and it does not strengthen or elevate our character. Only by freeing ourselves from this misconception can we rediscover the private, at times anti-social joys of reading.
There is of course another threat to the pleasures of reading, registered by the second half of the book’s title: the onslaught of distractions, the majority digital, that seem to consume more and more of our leisure hours. Jacobs is not categorically opposed to gadgets; he credits his Kindle with reviving his own passion for books. But he recognizes that they do pose a danger. The problem, in fact, with relinquishing the sense of obligation associated with reading literature is that we may simply end up spending our free time watching Youtube clips of celebrity outbursts or liking our friends’ bland witticisms and culinary experiences on Facebook. Thus Jacobs is forced to argue that reading literature is more satisfying than these other pursuits and habits. He even distinguishes between “whim,” the “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both” and “Whim,” a kind of intuition based on “self-knowledge” that allows us to satisfy our most authentic cravings.
“Whim” with a capital “w” requires self-cultivation and introspection, and thus Jacobs manages to smuggle back into the reading experience almost all of the aspirations and neuroses that his book promises to banish. Ironically enough, The Pleasures of Reading tends to make one all the more anxious about one’s own reading habits. How else are people like me supposed to respond to a book that painstakingly considers the question of whether to read quickly or slowly (slowly, says Jacobs), confronts the temptations of making lists of important as yet unread texts (don’t give in, he warns), and compulsively alludes to various canonical and non-canonical works (including Gibbon’s intimidating three-volume tome The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). By his own admission, Jacobs is a recovering dutiful reader, one still slightly ashamed to have finished a disappointing second in a grade school speed reading competition, and who remembers the exact page he reached in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions before giving up. The latter moment of clarity was liberating, he claims, but even now he can’t help but dwell upon his former compulsions.
While it labors to disentangle pleasure reading from dutiful reading , Jacobs’s book actually serves as a reminder of the inseparability of the two. Part of the enjoyment of reading a serious book or going, say, for a vigorous run is the belief that what you’re doing is difficult but good for you—that it offers proof of your character, even while it helps to build that character. Your superego, after all, is really just your id redirected, as a certain prolific Viennese author of many important works that you ought to have read by now, insisted. Jacobs observes, “the American reading public, or a significant chunk of it anyway, can’t take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty”—and though pleasure is booze and duty water in this metaphor, anyone who has enjoyed a good mixed drink knows that the ingredients need in fact to mix, to become indistinguishably combined in one smooth solution to be truly satisfying.
Of course some people don’t need to mix their drinks; these people, whom Jacobs refers to as his “tribe,” can handle their pleasure straight, and they are clearly, in his view, the elect. Paradoxically, in reserving his praise for this category of readers, those who read merely for pleasure and not in order to prove anything about themselves, Jacobs is, like any highbrow arbiter of taste, appealing to people’s aspirations. The cultural elite, after all, has always consisted of those whose good taste appeared spontaneous, effortless, inborn. Wouldn’t many savvy but ambitious middlebrow readers like to say and like to believe that they read solely for pleasure, that they find Shakespeare enjoyable simply because they are sensitive and intuitive enough to appreciate his wordplay, and not because they know they are supposed to appreciate it? I’ve been struggling for years to become someone who reads solely for pleasure—at least since college when certain old-fashioned literature professors suggested that we ought to be experiencing the highest, most refined satisfactions in doing the assigned reading. This was a kind of instruction far more daunting than anything devised by the most merciless of high school taskmasters. These people were putting my very soul to the test. And what if I failed? What if I didn’t enjoy King Lear? What did that mean about me? Wouldn’t I have no choice but to find a way to make myself enjoy it?
Jacobs would suggest that he is not celebrating an approach to literature specific to the cultural elite. In fact, he praises the British working class for their reputed auto-didacticism. Moreover, he is not saying that you need to enjoy King Lear. He is simply advising people to read what they enjoy—and abundant references to fantasy and science fiction novels suggest that his tastes are fairly democratic. But The Pleasures of Reading also features numerous casual allusions to serious, difficult authors ranging from Virginia Woolf to Leo Tolstoy to David Foster Wallace, and thus demonstrates a kind of cultural mastery that allows Jacobs to get away with his somewhat less canonical attachments. Or to put it more strongly, his references to genre fiction actually serve as proof of his unimpeachable status as a cultural authority—one who is so well-read that he has the luxury to indulge his lowbrow desires, and so assured of his position that he is not afraid to publicize these desires. Whether intentionally or not, Jacobs presents himself as a kind of ideal reader, as a model that he believes others ought to strive to imitate.
As I was reading The Pleasures of Reading, I began to take pleasure in noticing the various rhetorical tricks Jacobs performs in order to avoid giving the impression that he is imposing duties onto his reader. “If you want to understand Tolkien better you might want to start by reading Beowulf, and some of the Eddas and sagas of medieval Iceland, and then perhaps Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and it would even be worthwhile to get to know the nineteenth-century medievalism that Tolkien despised and against which he reacted, or thought he reacted. Listening to the music of Wagner would help also.” Quite an assignment! But Jacobs is of course hesitant to tell us what we ought to do: we “might want” to peruse the items on this list, and though of course he doesn’t intend to tax us unduly, “perhaps” we could read Sir Gawain (not presumably in the fairly unreadable middle English), and if we’re still enjoying ourselves, it would “even be worthwhile” to study a relatively obscure movement from the nineteenth century.
I’m suggesting here that Jacobs’s advice, like that of many aesthetes, turns the reader’s capacity for pleasure into just another test of his cultural status—and the effect of this kind of sly pressure is to make it more difficult to distinguish what we enjoy from what we think we ought to enjoy. It’s possible of course that all of this is simply my own neuroticism talking. Jacobs doesn’t seem to think that reading needs to be so fraught with complications. Though he addresses his former doubts and obsessions, his attitude now seems to be remarkably calm, relaxed, and confident—which he demonstrates most conspicuously by writing in a graceful, readable style free of excessive qualifications or convoluted syntax designed of course to make reading his own book a pleasurable experience.
In discussing a twelfth-century abbot’s advice on how to read, Jacobs remarks, “Let me risk one more Latin word here: for Hugh this meditation, especially on sacred texts, could best be achieved by ruminatio, a word which may call to mind something rather more highfalutin’ than Hugh intended. For us to ‘ruminate’ is to engage in a pretty dignified, or dignified-sounding, act, but Hugh was thinking of cows and goats and sheep, ruminant animals, those who chew the cud.” Yes, with this esoteric terminology, his text may suddenly sound just a bit mandarin, but he’s not terribly worried, and actually what he’s talking about is quite down-to-earth. And yet this casual, unflappable tone conceals hidden labor, hidden angst: Can I get away with a Latin term? Only if I self-consciously acknowledge the danger I am courting while also humbly requesting the reader’s indulgence: “let me risk” does the trick. But in case this is not enough, I’ll immediately adopt a populist vernacular, the kind of language ordinary people use when they talk about egg-headed intellectuals: thus “highfalutin.” Of course nobody by this point is going to think of me as common folk, and so am I going to end up sounding inauthentic? No: they’ll read this moment as tongue-and-cheek. But is it dangerous to use irony here? Won’t that just reinforce the image of me as an elitist, out-of-touch intellectual? Not at all: it just shows I can laugh at myself, and so that even as I make fun of my inability to sound folksy I’ll actually come across like more of a regular guy who isn’t really trying to place himself above his readers.
In imagining the process by which Jacobs has arrived at these sentences, I am not trying to be mean-spirited; I am simply trying to suggest that a fair amount of work and struggle underlies his seemingly easy-going enthusiasm for literature. Nor am I arguing that reading is not in fact pleasurable, or that pleasure is not one of the most compelling motives for turning to books. I am simply arguing that the very sense of duty that Jacobs claims he wants to exorcise is a key ingredient in that pleasure. And it is a key ingredient especially for the majority of American readers who are not as yet a part of Jacobs’s serenely hedonistic tribe, who are insecure about their cultural status and class position, and who are operating under the late-day shadow of the Protestant Ethic. That feeling of almost existential satisfaction that comes from finishing a long difficult book, the sense that one has thereby inched upward toward that unlikely pinnacle of moral virtue, aesthetic sensitivity, and social status, accompanied by the anxious itch to keep reading more, keep climbing—this whole masochistic, complexly satisfying struggle, however illusory its object, is something many of us simply wouldn’t do without. Reading features other pleasures of course, but a lot of people will continue to need a nudge, a dose of guilt, in order to experience them. Especially given the multitude of other diversions, the kind that we are able to enjoy far more effortlessly than books, but which tend to make us feel lethargic, irritable, and aimless, we need some stern professorial curmudgeons—including Jacobs—to tell us, as we lurch toward our laptops and or our iphones, snacking some more, though we’re already full: you know, you probably ought to be reading a book right now.