Why read?

Picking up the thread that Jim began unspooling on Monday and that Steph commented on yesterday, my question today is why read at all?

We all know that reading and writing go together like peanut butter and bananas (in case you hadn’t picked up on it from earlier posts, I’m an Elvis fan) and that the two activities are inextricably linked.   Reading comes first, though, doesn’t it?  You have to know how to read before you can write with meaning.  We write because we read, in other words.

Given all the competition for our attention these days (endless cable channels and Wiis and iTunes), it feels like reading is becoming more of a choice than an absolute necessity.  Which, of course, is part of the problem the publishing business is facing.  Why read when you can waste time playing Angry Birds on your iPhone?  Why read when you can go to a movie?  Or make small talk on Facebook?   Why read when you can spend hours downloading useless apps for your iPad?

Reading is solitary.  It can be intellectually taxing. It makes you flex numerous muscles including your imagination.  It is a singularly subjective experience (all of us have faced the disappointment of sharing a book we love with someone only to hear them opine that it’s just okay or, worse, pan it outright).  It entails a time commitment of hours, days, sometimes weeks.  And in some circles, it can even get you labeled a nerd.  So, why do we do it?

Personally, I’m a huge fan of film and tv (I have strong couch potato tendencies) and I thoroughly embrace each new technology that delivers information and entertainment more quickly and easily to me.  But, none of it compares to the thrill I get when flipping open a book to the first page.  There is something so intimate and special about entering an author’s mind and the universe she or he has created especially for me, knowing that for the duration of my stay in that universe, I will enjoy a deliciously private experience.  I won’t have to compete against the highest score on a video game.  I won’t have to laugh at the same punchlines my neighbor with the supersized popcorn bin finds hysterical.  I won’t have to do anything, in short, but allow the story and my imagination to carry me where they will.

I read for knowledge, for comfort, to relieve boredom, to make sense of the world and to be entertained, surprised, sometimes awed.  Why do you read when you have so many other pastimes to choose from?

10 Responses to Why read?

  1. EEV says:

    Reading is a whole experience. You get to interpret, to feel, to imagine… For me, there’s still to be invented something that surpasses the reach of this activity.
    Reading is personalized. The writer wrote it, but it’s you who decodes it according with your expectations and previous knowledge.

    So, why do I read? For fun, at least fiction and poetry. I do love movies, games and such. But reading gives me more satisfaction.

  2. Roxanne says:

    Reading is very personal for me as well. They’re a collaboration between me and the author, with each of us making an investment in the experience. I don’t see them as a solitary thing. I see them as a relationship built between two people, the author and myself. And they allow me to exercise my imagination, something that is very important to me.

    Movies and video games, well, most are designed by committee and are designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. They don’t typically leave much up to the imagination. Those movies and games that are written by a single writer to appeal to a smaller audience simply don’t get the budget to fully deliver the authors vision.

    Don’t get me wrong, I watch movies and play a lot of games, but I do that when I simply don’t want to think. I think all day at work, and some times I just need a break.

    I do have concerns that our society is becoming one where all communication between people fits in 140 characters worth of abbreviated words. You simply can’t build a meaningful relationship with that. And most communication consists basically of advertisements, with little room for imagination. One needs to exercise imagination for it to be strong. And without imagination, culture becomes stagnant.

    I also have hope that people will want to use their imagination again. Books will come back. Movies and games will be made with less detail, not more. All of that good stuff.

    We’ll see.

  3. Teri Carter says:

    I would rather read. It’s been this way since I was about 7. Sure, I watch my share of movies and bad TV, but give me a good book any day.

    Yet ….

    My sister-in-law claims she has never read more than 10 pages in any book. “Why read some book for days and days when you can watch a whole movie in 2 hours?!” She graduated from college. As a teacher. She teaches history to high school kids.

    A friend of mine published his memoir a few years ago. He had 300+ people at his book release party. He gives speeches on his memoir’s topic and, while his book sold well enough, it’s the speeches where he makes his living. He reads, maybe, one book a year. He hates reading.

  4. Lisa Ahn says:

    I love what you have to say about the intimacy and privacy of the reading experience. For me, there’s nothing else (except writing) that challenges my imagination so fully. I love to get lost in a great book, in the story and the language — it’s like finding yourself under water and realizing you can breathe. The worlds within books open up like revelations.

    Now, I’m off to have some peanut butter and bananas (with raisins, of course).

  5. I read for the same reason most writers say they write: because I cannot not.

  6. Eric Christopherson says:

    If you really wish to explore a topic comprehensively then it’s hard to beat a non-fiction book, and fiction does empathy better than any other medium. I think we all have an endless fascination with what it’s like to be other people, particularly people on the fringes of society or at the end of their rope or facing huge challenges, externally and/or internally.

  7. Miriam says:

    Hmmm, raisins. Yeah, I confess that I don’t really understand people who consider themselves writers who also claim not to read books. I remember hearing that Hemingway suggested that in order to be a good writer you need to read the best books and the worst and learn from both.

  8. Amy Lewis says:

    While I, too engage in my share of tee vee, movies and idle Twitter Chat, I read because…well, because it’s fun to read. Books are fun. Pirate ships, Zombies, Tragic Byronic Heroes, seances, love triangles — all these things are FUN. A poster above quoted a friend/family member who said “Why spend all that time reading a book when you can watch a movie in 2 hours?” I take it the other way around. Movies are great, but they only last …. well a couple of hours. I can see magic for WEEKS in an epic fantasy, I can spend DAYS with a tragic Byronic hero.

    Maybe this is why I have taken up genre fiction and Young Adult fiction in the last few years. Mysteries are FUN. Dragons are FUN. Young Adult books give me that sense of adventure and movement that I don’t find in a lot of contemporary literary novels.

    Maybe eBooks will remind people that reading actually IS fun.

  9. Laura says:

    Sometimes, I can’t decide between reading and eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich. But I think I always make the right choice. (And yes, my books do smell like peanut butter.)

  10. Ciara says:

    I can’t imagine my life without reading. It really is my favourite thing to do, and the main reason I’m a writer. I can’t stop reading and I love that it’s so much more engaging than the endless technological distractions like boring rehashed sitcoms and repetitive computer games. That stuff does my head in, it’s just so inane! I’m not saying I don’t enjoy nights of watching 6 episodes of Community in a row followed by Miss Congeniality but I couldn’t do it every day!

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