Why Do We Read?

February 8th, 2009

Note: this post is a tweaked version of one I wrote for the other blog I contribute to, Bookstore People.  I always feel slightly guilty stealing from myself, but . . .  it’s not actually wrong, is it?

You know the thing teachers say in elementary schools-“First kids learn to read and then they read to learn”?  Makes sense.  But what about when you’re done with all your schooling?  What makes any of us want to keep reading?  Why do you pick up one book at a bookstore and not another?  Are we still reading to learn or are we reading for some other reason?

At any given moment, my good friend Kim is reading historical fiction, historical non-fiction, books about music theory, books about spirituality, modern fiction, classic fiction-the list goes on and on.  (She’s in like seven serious book clubs.)  Meanwhile a solid 80 percent of what I read is fantasy or graphic novels.

Now, I was an English literature major in college.  I read my way through the old man’s canon and could discuss Eliot, Dickens, Swift, Thackerey, Cleland, Richardson and so on with the best of them.  My senior thesis compared Jane Eyre to Richardson’s Pamela, with a look at all the literature that fell in the 100 years between those two seminal books, informing the changing attitudes toward a woman’s place in the home. 

I mention this not to brag (although I hope you’re REALLY impressed with me) but to prove that I’m as capable as anyone of explicating complicated texts.  So how’d I end up, a couple of decades later, devouring one sword and sorcery saga after another?  Because life is hard, and modern literature is sad, and I read to escape sadness. 

The last twenty years have taught me a whole new vocabulary.  Words like autism, Addison’s Disease, Parkinson’s, and pancreatic cancer have all become way more familiar than I ever wanted (and let’s not forget the most dreaded words of all: “college applications”).

I started Atonement last year and was enjoying the beautiful writing when it suddenly hit me that the wonderful young male protagonist was about to have his life destroyed by a false accusation.  It’s one of Kim’s favorite books so I mentioned my fears to her and said, “I can’t keep reading this.”  She urged me to continue and reminded me that you can’t have atonement without something to atone for.  I stuck the book on my night stand and it stayed there for a long time and eventually I put it back on our bookshelves.  It hurt to read it.  And I hurt enough.

I look for books that are set in places and worlds that don’t really exist so that even when bad things happen, I don’t have to think about the bad things that are really happening today, in our very real world.  Now and then a modern lit book sneaks into my life and sometimes I even like them.  But most nights, when I lie down finally to rest and read, I’m much more likely to reach for the book with a man holding a sword on the cover than the one that the New York Times just reviewed as “somber, dark, and brilliant.” 

So I read to escape.  If I had to sum up why Kim reads (which I shouldn’t do without asking her but, then again, why not?), I’d say she still reads to learn and also to be inspired.  I know she has her moments of reading fun escapism literature but she certainly doesn’t limit herself to that.

So why do you all read?  I’d be interested in hearing.  When you go into a bookstore, where do you linger?  What books do you pick up and look at but end up not buying?  What books do you buy routinely, the second they appear on the shelves?  Do you read book reviews and choose from those?  Do you ever read books out of a feeling of duty, like you should but maybe don’t really want to?  Do you feel like reading something purely for enjoyment is a waste of your time? 

Please, if you have the energy, write a comment and let me know.  I’d like to know who else out there is reading, like me, for pleasure and escape, and who looks primarily for edification.  I’m curious and curiouser.