An epigraph by Lord Foppington opens the essay, saying that reading a book is effectively entertaining oneself in another man's mind. With a touch of irony, Elia that confesses that that he dedicates a sizable portion of his time to other people's thoughts. He says he can not sit and think, but that books think for him. He doesn't have aversions to any author, and will occupy himself with all sorts of texts, be they directories, almanacs, court calendars, and so on.
He says that a book's ideal state is to be well-constructed, and that its magnificence as a text is secondary. Not every book should be dressed magnificently, not even the works of Shakespeare and Milton, unless they are first editions. He goes on to extol books that are a little beat up, talking about how books look best when they are well-read and dog-eared. If a book looks a little worn out, that's because it has been well-read, and what more could someone desire of a book?
The better a book is, says Elia, the less it demands binding. Good and rare books are the ones to perish exactly because they are read so much that they begin to wear away. He talks of authors whose books only exist as reprints, such as Milton and Fuller, whose original works have long sing disappeared thanks to prolific readership. The decay of old texts ensures the decaying posterity of their writers, which Elia posits is a good thing, since it reminds us of imperfection.
The one type of text that Elia has disdain for, though, is the newspaper. He says that it's impossible to put down a newspaper without feeling disappointed by the sensation of reading it, and reviles the habit in banks and barbershops of people reading newspaper articles out loud for others to hear. Elia closes on a different note, bemoaning books that are kept from the poor when people can't afford to buy them. He recounts a poem by an author he doesn't name, lamenting a boy who wants to read but is shooed away by a shop owner who complains that the boy never actually buys anything.
While Lamb opens the essay talking about how he's constantly preoccupying himself with other people's thoughts, "Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading," stands as one the more inventive essays in the Elia oeuvre. There are a series of clever techniques that Lamb employs which wouldn't seem out of place in post-modernist literature. For example, the essay opens with Lamb quoting another man's thoughts on reading being an act of getting lost in another man's thoughts. Similarly, the essay ends with an "anonymous" essay, which talks about a boy effectively stealing reading time just as Lamb himself pretends to steal a poem.
Of course, the poem Lamb is quoting is one of his own writing, not one written by a female contemporary of his as he suggests. This, in itself, is another clever move, as it helps create the very kind of well-read and slightly degraded text that he praises earlier in the essay. Lamb elevates this very essay to the echelon of the well-loved books he mentions earlier as if winking at the reader, saying, "Don't you love my work too?"
What do we make of Lamb talking about gladly reading any old text he finds sitting around by taking issue with newspapers? It seems that what Lamb values in reading is the solitary experience of taking time with oneself to enter another person's mind. The newspaper reading that he describes is a social act, with articles being read aloud, eliciting responses from others. Perhaps this is Lamb's issue with newspapers writ large, that they are intended first and foremost as public-minded texts, meant to spark some common conversation. What Lamb values is the independence of the reader, reflecting an infatuation with solitude similar to that of fellow Romantics such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.