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Why We Read

The Edge of Love

The Edge of Love

Remembering Why We Read

Because sometimes I just need to reflect and remember why I spend so much time in the company of the written word. Maybe you do, too?

Because I can: A love of reading is something that I may or may not have been born with, but it was certainly the social and educational advantages my parents were able to give me that provided the opportunity to indulge that love. In so many ways, literacy is the foundation of personal independence and social mobility, and I need to never take that for granted.

Because I have to: Have you ever been in a place where you didn’t share the language everyone else uses effortlessly? It’s a quick reminder of how much we rely on the ability to read in navigating the world and life in general, from the simplest to the most complicated tasks. Another thing I need to remember never to take for granted.

Because of the many gifts reading has to offer

Relief from being too much in my own mind: Whether it’s just the newspaper or TMZ or a novel, at least twenty times a day I need a break from my own thoughts. Not because they’re so incredibly lofty or important, but usually because they’re so ridiculous and banal, and therefore a mental and emotional drain. Even five minutes of listening to someone else’s written voice can give me an enormous sense of relief and rejuvenation.

Experiencing other ways of knowing the world: Whenever we write, whatever we write, we are expressing our way of knowing and understanding the world. Even when we write in search of that understanding, we do so in a way that reflects a particular point of view and way of seeing. So when we read what someone else has written, whether it’s a biography or a novel or even a contract, we temporarily partake of that way of knowing, and potentially bridge two different ways of understanding.

Gaining empathy: If we are willing to entertain another way of knowing the world, to contemplate and imagine that other point of view, we can gain a level of understanding that leads to empathy – that is, the ability to see the world from another perspective, perhaps even one that seems antagonistic to our own. A great example of this, albeit of its absence, is the insistence that a Muslim scholar cannot write a book about the historical figure of Jesus.

Expanding the imagination: Nothing begets ideas more easily than entertaining other ideas. They are like those molecular simulations of steam from middle school science class – bouncing and banging around against each other, reacting and potentially changing form. If I need to write an article, I do best by reading lots of other articles on related subjects first, to deepen my own thinking and hopefully generate a new idea of my own out of a synthesized assimilation of existing ideas. If I’m reading a novel, I can imagine all sorts of other things within the world the author has created. This is one reason I long for more ubiquity of rich, detailed world building; rather than limiting the places my mind can wander, I get a better hold of the landscape and can mentally wander with more curiosity and confidence.

Experiencing the infinite beauty and profundity of words: How many ways have we found to express the same thing using different words, or different things using the same words? So many expressions – an infinity of possibilities – from a limited array of symbols and structures. One of the most pernicious consequences of poorly written and edited text is that it compromises the integrity of the tools we use to build all of those impressions and expressions. Spelling counts. Grammar counts. Punctuation counts. And for those who have mastered it well enough to break it, it counts even more. Language use is to some degree fluid (dialect can be a powerful ode to linguistic flexibility), but that fluidity counts on the constancy of the elements.

Connecting to ourselves and others more deeply: There is a freedom in reading and experiencing a world we do not necessarily have to experience in real life. We can be faster, stronger, braver, cruder, deeper, smarter, duller, physically different, more circumspect, or less mentally sedentary. We can have the satisfaction of emotional justice or catharsis following great trauma. We can share a triumph or mourn a loss. I’ve always thought that people who believe reading to be isolating are not really readers. If nothing else, reading offers the chance to connect to deeper levels in oneself, which in turn can expand thinking and interacting with the world. Fear can be assuaged by turning a page or suspense satisfied by finishing a chapter. Isolation can be remedied by making a phone call, walking into another room, or merely turning your body toward another person for contact. Elation can be shared, especially with those who have had the same experience with a book, and disagreement can give rise to deeper levels of understanding and empathy.

Engaging with words, ideas, and feelings: Reading, like writing, is both a solitary and a shared activity. Whether one imagines an audience or is the audience, text is interactive. And one of the greatest virtues of reading is the ability to have an experience with a book you can barely describe, let alone embrace, intellectually and emotionally, only to find that others have had the exact same experience. At that moment, it’s like all the wisdom from that book exponentially expands, and it all becomes more vivid and more important. How much you can learn about others by the way they talk about and relate to books, and how much you can offer those conversations by engaging with books. I think that having a meaningful relationship with other worlds in words makes everything and everyone vastly more interesting.

Sharing the experience of being human in all of its diversity and complexity: At our best, we are generous in our desire to share our differences and appreciate our diversity, understanding that without these differences we would have nothing to challenge each other to be and do better, to set our aspirations higher, to let our awareness reach deeper, to embrace the project of being human with genuine compassion for and interest in each other. At our best, our book communities are alive with this constructive, giddy symbiosis. Of course, we are masters of our own creation or destruction, and we engage in both, the lifecycles of our communities always in flux. But at our best, at our very, very best, we are alive with respectful appreciation for those things we can’t fully know or experience ourselves; understanding of differences that can only be bridged with mutual respect and awareness; aware of other ways of being in the world; interested in other ways of seeing, interested in other worlds, even. Embracing of new experiences, welcoming of challenges to everything we thought we knew, and richly, passionately, openly engaged in the work of living life in each other’s company.

At its best, I imagine that our relationship with reading, and with each other, is a little bit like the way Adrienne Rich described love:

An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons books about love have always been so popular. A book will always “go that hard way with us,” and ideally we will all be better for it.

 

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

14 Comments

  1. dick
    Jul 30, 2013 @ 08:28:06

    A timely reminder.

    ReplyReply

  2. Dabney
    Jul 30, 2013 @ 08:32:46

    What a lovely column. A timely for me. I was just telling my 20 year old son that I thought it was critical to read fiction as well as non-fiction. The points you make about expanding imagination, compassion, understanding and tolerance were all was I stressed–though less eloquently than you have. I’m going to email him this. Thanks.

    ReplyReply

  3. Emma
    Jul 30, 2013 @ 08:48:58

    This is so lovely, thank you. The only thing I’d add is a quote from The History Boys, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” I read to feel less special and less lonely.

    ReplyReply

  4. Amber Belldene
    Jul 30, 2013 @ 18:28:49

    I couldn’t agree more. A beautifully thorough reflection!

    ReplyReply

  5. sarah Mayberry
    Jul 30, 2013 @ 20:50:53

    Great piece. This made me think of a conversation I had with my brother recently wherein he was bemoaning the lack of interest in his life. He’s bored, basically, by the day-in, day-out of life and I realised that I really couldn’t get my head around his POV because a) I have a job that I find incredibly challenging, fulfilling and emotionally satisfying (when the words flow), and b) because I am a reader, and have always been, and when I think of the world I think of all the stories out there that I have read and have yet to read and all the places and people I have met and am yet to meet through the pages of a book. I think reading gives us access to a whole other plane of existence – the analogue version of the “virtual world”, if you will – that has a never-ending array of experiences to offer. My world, therefore is rich with adventure, romance, potential and mystery. I think I need to convert him to books!

    ReplyReply

  6. Why We Read | Dear Author | The Modern MLIS
    Jul 31, 2013 @ 00:00:52

    [...] Because sometimes I just need to reflect and remember why I spend so much time in the company of the written word. Maybe you do, too? See the full post: Why We Read | Dear Author [...]

  7. Janet/Robin
    Jul 31, 2013 @ 00:14:20

    @Dabney: Thanks, Dabney. I was thinking about all the seemingly mundane things I read every day, and how much a part of the larger picture they really are to me. Had I just focused on Romance, I would have included a sentence about how important it is to represent more diversity, because that’s still a somewhat impoverished aspect of the genre. Which seems especially sad and ironic when you think about how much the genre stresses connections between people.

    @Emma: That’s one of the best feelings ever, isn’t it? You can be the most socially engaged person ever, but there’s still something about connecting to the written word in that very intimate way that just feels so personally revealing and validating, at the same time.

    @sarah Mayberry: Your comment is one of the reasons I’m ambivalent about the term “escape” in connection with books. Yes, they provide a respite and a shift in focus and attention and perspective, but in another way they open up the possibility so many other potential connections that it feels more like an alternate reality than an escape from reality.

    ReplyReply

  8. Susan
    Jul 31, 2013 @ 00:49:02

    This is a beautiful piece, and I’m definitely going to save/reread it.

    There have been times in my life, sometimes prolonged periods, when I was unable to read. The loss was almost physically painful.

    I’m never bored or lonely when I read.

    ReplyReply

  9. cleo
    Jul 31, 2013 @ 09:25:26

    @Janet/Robin I’ve recently stopped saying that I read for escape / escapism and instead say that I read for pleasure, because I think that’s more accurate. Reading gives me such joy, such pleasure.

    I do sometimes read to actively escape from or avoid something in my life (frex, right now I’m reading DA instead of grading), and occasionally doing that feels like it’s deadening me, instead of enlivening me – which means it’s time to put down my book and deal with whatever I’m avoiding. But usually reading feels incredibly life affirming – for all of the reasons you list.

    ReplyReply

  10. readerdiane
    Jul 31, 2013 @ 10:36:14

    Great piece. I was a reading teacher for over 30 years and this is a perfect example of why I did what I did. I wanted my students to enjoy the gift of the written word.

    ReplyReply

  11. Janet/Robin
    Jul 31, 2013 @ 14:25:43

    @cleo: That kind of procrastination reading is difficult, because it comes with enough guilt that you can’t really get away from what you should be doing, but it’s tempting enough to keep you from doing the other work.

    I try to give myself sanctioned breaks to read for short periods of time, which not only makes a tedious or complicated project more manageable, but it can also refresh me and let my mind percolate over a difficult problem or issue. That, more than anything, is the real benefit of those reading breaks for me (they can also be computer game breaks, which seem to have the same percolating effect), because I tend to let things simmer for quite a while before I’m ready to articulate my own take. If I get too focused on something, I can lose perspective on precisely what it is I’m trying to get to.

    ReplyReply

  12. Fiona McGier
    Aug 01, 2013 @ 18:22:51

    I tell the kids I sub for in high schools what I’ve always told my own kids: each of us is born “stuck” in our own head, unable to ever really experience someone else’s life or thoughts. That’s okay, and if we’re very lucky, we make friends or lovers with whom we can share things so profound that it feels almost like we’re a part of each other. But the only way to really experience living in someone else’s head for a while is to read a book. That’s how I can pretend I’m Shakespeare, or Carl Sandburg, or Desmond Morris, the cultural anthropologist. I can read their thoughts then think them also. I write in books because it’s my way of having a conversation, no matter how one-sided, back with the author. I cherish being exposed to new thoughts…new ways of thinking. That’s why I read. To experience lives other than my own, and thoughts that help me to grow in ways I’d never dreamed of before I read that book.

    ReplyReply

  13. Stumbling Over Chaos :: The week in which I recommend that you eat before linkitying
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 19:10:20

    [...] “Remembering why we read“. [...]

  14. Suggestion Box | Something More
    Aug 11, 2013 @ 21:21:29

    [...] Robin’s post on “Why We Read” (I’m catching up from vacation) and litlove’s on “Reading Slumps” (especially the final paragraph). Just because sometimes, I need to be reminded of all that’s good about reading. [...]

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