Why We Read
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.