Why I Read
This essay was inspired by Wendy Lesser's Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. Wendy is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review and author of ten books. Why I Read is available for purchase at Subtext.
Why do I read? I didn’t always enjoy reading. There was a time when I found reading mundane and burdensome. I first fell madly in love with reading when I transitioned from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps to historical non-fiction.
I remember the exact moment. I was in my elementary school’s library and had just finished reading Stine’s Night of the Living Dummy. It wasn’t a bad read -- a suspenseful tale of a young child whose worst nightmare becomes reality when a ventriloquist’s doll comes to life to haunt and terrify her and her sister. As exciting as that sounds, the story of Slappy the possessed ventriloquist’s doll never captivated me.
I asked the librarian to help me find my next book. She asked me a few things about what I wanted to read. “I want to learn about things that are real,” I said, “not about made-up stories.” She directed me to the non-fiction section, and helped me comb through the titles until I came across a book that caught my eye – one about the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. I was nine or ten at the time and was far too naïve to abide by the “don’t judge a book by its cover” rule. When I saw the image of those six courageous men raising the Stars and Stripes on that war-torn mountain top, like a walleye to the Rapala, I was hooked.
I was mesmerized by the heroic stories of the soldiers and the tales of battle. I wanted to know everything about the nature of war and was fascinated by the history of our country and our world. This fascination would lead me down a path of historical study that I will never find the end of. (Meanwhile, I have rediscovered an appreciation for “made up stories” and now love fiction, too.)
The moral of this story is that reading isn’t about what is good or bad or any of the other qualitative adjectives so superfluously attached to works of literature. Reading is about finding that one piece of work that excites your soul; that stirs the embers at the bottom of your fire and awakens a new and previously unexplored space of your consciousness. For me, that was historical texts and eventually philosophical works. For you it might be love stories, or political discourse. Hell, it could even be R.L. Stine!
In our increasingly technology-driven society we are exposed to more written work than ever before, even when they are as superficial as Facebook or as shallow as a “journalist’s” story on J Biebs. With all our technological advancements creating new entertainment media, reading a book (you mean a book with, like, paper?) seems to be pushed further and further toward the back of our cultural freight train.
To hell with that I say! A book will always serve to fulfill our insatiable desire for knowledge and our need to briefly escape reality. Books are filled with symbols that can be transformed from scribbles into concepts that are as immutable as the sun and stars.
I am reminded of a quote by Carl Sagan that expresses this idea in more beautiful prose than I could ever pretend to recreate:
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
In the hands of the right magician, a book becomes more than just squiggles on paper. A book creates a world within your own imagination. You aren’t merely an observer reading. You are the creator who gives life to the characters. Words describe the characters, but your imagination brings them to life. You provide the emotion. You embody their hopes, fears, loves, and despairs. You become an active participant in the adventure.
Reading literature changes the neural pathways of your brain and improves connectivity between neurons. Deeply immersing yourself in a work of fiction generates empathy for the lives and experiences of others. And in a society where egotism and the “look out for number one” mentality dominates, anything that teaches empathetic reactions and creates connections between individuals ought to be valued highly. Reading is ultimately a contemplative task. It allows the individual to scour the deepest caverns of his or her own mind and discover things about him- or herself that would have otherwise been left unexcavated.
I read to escape the everyday grind. To relieve stress through the adventures of characters who are more riveting than my own simple existence. For entertainment and for education. To bring those authors of past epochs back to life within my own imagination. Because every book is infinitely better than keeping up with the Kardasians.
At this point in my life I can honestly, without equivocation, say that reading is my favorite activity. Nothing excites me more than searching the stacks at a bookstore and waiting for the perfect book to glow brightly and attract my mind with its gravity. That excitement grows steadily until I am genuinely invested in the characters’ own worldview and, when the book is finished, I quickly race back to find the next adventure.
So, let me ask you – why do you read?