An answer in three parts: for pleasure, for education, and for perspective.
I have been thinking about the answer to the question, “Why Read,” for years. The question first became my focus as I reflected on why I had quit reading after law school. When I quit I was lonely and felt shallow.
When I got desperate enough I started reading for answers to the big questions like how to exist and even why exist.As I started to read again I tried to think about why it was that I was drawn to this activity again after avoiding for years.
I think I have boiled it down to three reasons. We read for pleasure, for education, or for perspective. There is overlap. If you are reading for pleasure, education, and perspective you are reading at the highest level. This is the reader’s highest achievement.
By this I mean read what you like.
Read for entertainment without worrying about any secondary gain.
The only focus you are aware of is your own amusement, diversion, or enjoyment.
By this I mean read to learn.
Read for knowledge. Develop your power of reason or judgment.
Read in preparation for life. Test your knowledge by making mature decisions.
By this I mean read to understand the state of one’s ideas.
Read to adjust the way you look at the world.
Read to understand how two people, places, things, or ideas interact.
Does it matter why we read?
In order to read, to have incentive to pick up a book, you have to start with the reasons why.
As a student I used to hate the teachers that used to explain things by saying, “Because I said so.” No response annoyed me more.
If I ever taught, I vowed, I would always explain why something was the case.
I realize we aren’t in class and I realize I’m not your teacher, but I wanted to put forward the reasons to read in a broad stroke.
Now, let’s talk about each reason in some additional depth:
Reading for Pleasure
“Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn’t carry a book around for those inevitable dead spots in life.”― Stephen King
Many of our teachers and schools have failed us. They took the fun out of reading by making it an assignment. They should have showed us another side to reading. The side that makes reading a superior form of entertainment. Yes, even superior to TV.
In the hierarchy, fun ranks at the top. Reading is fun. Fun is the first reason to read. If you’re lucky, you won’t need another reason. If you always read for fun it won’t be work. You do enough work. You need release. Reading is release. Make fun your first goal. If you think you aren’t learning anything because you’re reading for fun, you’re wrong. Learning will come.
Why is Reading Fun?
I could offer an emotional appeal here. Books smell great. Their smell brings back memories. Their words remind you of a lost parent or grandparent. You may have been read to as a child. Those are good reasons to read, but they are not the primary reason.
Experience New Worlds
Reading is fun because it reminds you there is some part of the world you have not seen. New worlds are made in books. If you had the power to travel at a moments notice to any place you wanted without leaving the comfort of your living room, would you use it? If you answer yes, then you must read. Books are time travel devices. Books are transportation. Books are personal introductions to the greatest thinkers.
Books Are Workouts for Your Senses
You want to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes the world offers. Books help you practice experiencing what your senses should enjoy in new places. Books introduce you to new sensations. They also give you words so you can share the sensation.
Writers are keen observers. They have been testing and naming sensations their whole lives. A book is a writer’s way to share a sensation she experienced.
Reading is Practice Being Present
Being present is being alive. Being alive is fun, right? Have you ever tried to read without being present? If you are distracted you can’t read. Reading leaves you no choice in the matter. You will be present and enjoy yourself.
Reading is a More Difficult Pleasure
Not all pleasure comes from easy tasks. Reading is a more difficult pleasure. It is a more difficult pleasure, but there can be fun in understanding something that requires your full attention and effort. Like difficult exercise that tears muscle fibers to build them stronger, reading difficult material prepares the brain to tackle harder tasks. Have you ever felt satisfied by pushing yourself beyond your physical limits? That is fun. Experience the mental equivalent. Read.
Read to Uncover Plot
Reading can be as hard as struggling to understand an expertly written piece of imaginative literature or as easy as strumming the pages to gather the pieces of a simple plot. I’ve talked about uncovering plot. Uncovering an interesting plot is fun. We desire to see stories unfold. Our lives are stories unfolding. A great book reveals the lives of others in the same way, right before our eyes and at your own pace.
Read to Laugh
Sometimes, you can even read to laugh when a laugh is what you need. Books deliver. If you let them, books read your mind and give you exactly what you need. Have you ever laughed from what you read? If you answered no, you should experience it. If you answered yes, share how much fun it is in the comments or with a friend.
There is a book for every sense of humor.
Read for Social Pleasure
There is social pleasure in reading. Pull out your favorite book on the subway. Let people see you read. Your reading communicates to the people around you some things about who you are. You are a reader. You read despite what others may think or say. You take advantage of your time on earth. Show off who you are.
Share what you read as well. Like a well-watered rose can’t wait to show its flower you can’t wait to share what you’ve read. Before you had nothing to share, you might have thought. Now, with reading, you have an entire library to share.
Read to Experience Multitudes
Walt Whitman says, we “contain multitudes.” True. A multitude of interests, a multitude of desires, a multitude of thoughts. Everything we do is in multitudes. Books satisfy some of those multitudes by being multitudes themselves. One day when we wake up we may have a very different interest than then one we had the day before. Books are there to satisfy those multitudes in the most efficient way we can imagine. Books satisfy multitudes, not at the surface level, but in enough depth that our thirst is quenched.
Multitudes are the opposite of monotony.
Read to Never Be Bored
I have never met a bored reader. Being bored is the opposite of fun. One day you may retire. You may have a day with nothing planned. One day you may need to escape day to day life. Some days I joke about wanting a shed in the backyard with nothing in it. A place where I can go and sit. Some people have vacation houses or deer camps. All of these are “places all your own.” Books can be your “place all your own” until you get a real one. Then, when you get a real one you can take your books with you.
Reading for Education
The beauty of reading is, “You can use the powers you acquire from books to live better yourself and to do something for the people around you.” - Malcolm X
The things I remember are the things that are connected to some other sensation, emotion, or idea. Connections I can’t make in life I can make through books. In that way books are tools used to pass on education and experience.
I will never go to war. I will never command an army. I will never spend time in prison. These are, however, potentially valuable experiences. To empathize with others I should know something of what these things are like.
I will lose a loved one. I will be the butt of a joke. I will be ridiculed. I will be the dumbest man in a room. I will be hurt by a loved one. I will hurt someone’s feelings. I will have my feelings hurt. I will die. To prepare for these experiences I can ignore them or I can prepare through the kind of education books can provide.
I may make a decision that means life or death for someone I care about. I may be called upon to give my opinion on a matter that’s important. I may find myself defending the weak. I should prepare and books are the most efficient way to do so, outside of, perhaps practical experience. Getting practical experience, however, is not always possible. To fill the gap I must read.
Education Leads to Self-Confidence
It is only when you have read enough that you know who you are. Then, you can become yourself, finally. Only once you become yourself can you be a benefit to other people. The process of becoming yourself requires self-education. You must conquer your own demons, your own shadow. Only then can you share that with the world.
How do you test yourself? How will you know when you are ready to share? How will you know when you are educated enough to contribute? Use books to test yourself. The greater the book the greater the test. Do you know and understand more than your neighbor about it? Can you use the book as a tool to solve your own problems? If the answer is yes then you have something to offer the world. The educated wield books like warriors wield swords.
Educate Yourself to Educate Others
The education you read for is not just your own. Children with parents that read turn into readers. Children watch what you do and do that when they are bored. Do you want your children to be educated? If you do then you must be educated yourself. You have to put in the effort to make yourself a light for your children to be drawn to.
Education Is an Evolutionary Advantage
The kind of education you read for can be an evolutionary advantage. Reading allows us to imagine things before they happen. In that way we can prepare for what may yet come. Our survival does not depend on being the strongest, fastest, or most durable. Our continued survival depends on being the best planners, the most imaginative. We rely on our ability to imagine what could happen and then enact a plan to survive it. Use your evolutionary advantage. Reading is imagining. Reading is practice in creative planning.
Books are the Most Patient Teachers
Have you ever had a patient teacher? Maybe you have. If you have you are blessed. Write them today and thank them.
Have you ever had the benefit of endless time, unlimited access, and an endless supply of the brightest minds the world has ever known? Yes, but if you aren’t reading you are letting those teachers sit in empty classrooms and give lectures to empty chairs. Books are the most patient teachers. Take advantage of them.
Being Educated Feels Good
What does it feel like to read a book and understand it? You feel smart. When was the last time someone called you smart? If it has been more than a week you may need to read more. Maybe the better question is, when was the last time you called yourself smart? If you can’t remember then you need to read. I’m not talking about vanity. I’m talking about reading to have the ability to make it through every day with your head held high no matter what happens because you know you have contributed and you will contribute more because you are improving. That is a powerful feeling.
We Need Educated Heroes
What is a hero? Joseph Campbell has probably done the best job of explaining the myth of the hero. You should read him, by the way.
What Joseph Campbell says is, “a hero is someone able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations.” I’ve mentioned this before, but the statistics point to the need. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Forty-two percent of college graduates never read another book after college. Eighty percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. (Source: Jenkins Group).
People don’t read after they finish school and most houses don’t buy books. You are a hero struggling against this historical limitation.
Does your city have a particularly uneducated feel to it? If you have noticed this then you are a hero, but only if you decide you are going to go get knowledge and then bring it back to your city. If you accept the quest and then return with some form of knowledge then you are a hero. Be a hero. Bring reading back. Are all heroes welcomed with open arms? Not in modern society. Be prepared for detractors but be a hero anyway.
Access to the “Great Conversation”
There is a conversation that has been going on since man came into existence. It started with tales, “grunts from the hunt.” Now, we have endless volumes of electronic books to carry on the conversation. You can’t just jump into the conversation anywhere, though. That would be rude. At the very least, you would get some strange looks. You would likely be dismissed until you listened for a while and got up to speed.
If you read, you can learn what you need in order to participate. The beauty of this conversation is, if you are smart about how you participate and smart about how much you know about the conversation that happened before you jump in, then you can be a part of the conversation even after your body is dead.
In this conversation you will get to hear from the greatest minds that have ever existed. You will get to hear the opinions of the thinkers you most admire. Then, if you truly read their words and understand what they have to say, you can match yourself against them and improve their ideas. What more lasting tribute can you imagine? Your contribution can assure your favorite thinkers remain part of the conversation for centuries to come.
A Full Education Prepares You For Death
Our life prepares us for our death. If we read we remember that the world did just fine before we came around and we learn that the world will be just fine when we leave. Before we were born we weren’t miserable. We weren’t even conscious of our existence or non-existence. Reading tells us that many good things still happen when we are not around.
We also learn that we can leave a lasting legacy if we try. The legacy need not be for the entire world to be important. If our families benefit, it is a worthwhile legacy. They will want to know what kind of person we were and whether there was something they can learn from how we lived our lives. Write them something to pass on what you’ve learned. They will read that.
As a reader you are an example to all of man kind. You show them our potential. Set the right example and people will flock to you out of admiration and out of the desire to learn. This is what the best writers accomplish.
Be more than a lump of organic existence. Take yourself, through education, into the plane of ideas. Reading is, free, guaranteed passage into the plane of ideas.
Your good fortune is the access you have to knowledge. Everywhere you look, there are books. Our struggle is no longer one of resources. Our struggle is of resource management. Time is one of those resources that must be managed appropriately. Read to make the best use of your time.
Reading for Perspective
Perspective is concerned with three things: (1) your own thoughts; (2) how you view another’s thoughts; (3) how you view the way two or more sets of ideas interact.
Perspective is how the world appears. Your background, experience, knowledge, and wisdom influence perspective.
How do reading and perspective intersect?
Reading is available as an exercise to gain knowledge, test your perspective, reexamine it for necessary revisions, and deploy a new perspective to solve problems or simply get more enjoyment out of life.
Reading also informs how you view another person’s perspective. Is their perspective based on knowledge or ignorance? Can you help them to improve their perspective or are they reluctant to change?
These are all problems reading can solve.
Connections give life meaning. Reading makes you feel like you have experienced something personal. When an idea you’ve read about appears in life you get the impression that you have experienced it before. This gives more meaning to your reading and your life.
Coincidence as a Form of Perspective
Coincidence is defined as “the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection.” Coincidences come in many forms. They are commonly encountered in literature and in life.
In every form, you get more out of life by recognizing the connection than by ignorance.
Coincidence is interesting because to recognize the coincidence you must make a mental connection between two distinct events. The more you learn or have experienced, the more coincidences you recognize.
For example, there are those that believe that the appearance of a certain series of numbers in nature constitutes a coincidence worth exploring. The number set, known as the Fibonacci sequence, comes up everywhere from the arrangement of leaves on a stem to the arrangement of a pine cone. The meaning we give to the number creates the potential for coincidence.
The recognition between two events makes you feel a renewed excitement about life. I get excited when I have made another connection because I understand I can examine it and look at it from all angles to try to weave it into my understanding of the world. Be very careful, however, not to be so carried away by the coincidence that you are blinded and cannot recognize future connections.
By way of example, if you spent your life searching for the occurrence of the Fibonacci sequence in nature you would shut yourself off from making other connections just by sheer focus. Instead, be open to connections of all kind and take joy in recognizing coincidences in life.
Paul Auster’s Use of Coincidence
Paul Auster has earned a reputation as an author that puts coincidence under a microscope. To Auster, people are so influenced by the continuity among them that they do not see the elements of coincidence, inconsistency, and contradiction in their own lives. By exploring these coincidences Auster creates contradictions and contrast in this writing and uses that idea to explore the contradictions in his own life. In other words, he uses coincidence to highlight his novels for the reader.
Auster understands we are programmed to focus on connections. We do this when reading and in life. It’s only when we stop looking that we need to worry about our ability to enjoy life.
(If you’re interested in experiencing Auster’s play with coincidence you can try his Moon Palace. In it, Auster really plays with the question, is there any such thing as coincidence?)
I encourage you to recognize connections between events in your life or coincidences. The more you can either collect or create by imagination the more data you will have to rely on in answering the ultimate questions in life. Reading is a method of collecting data and exercising the imagination. The act of recognizing coincidence is an exercise in appreciation.
Stories are our lives. Our lives are stories.
When you pick up a book and start to read, if it’s a good one, you will find yourself engrossed in the story. Finding out what happens next becomes a desire you come one step closer to realizing every time you turn the page. Humans’ interest in stories is natural. It’s universal. We want stories to be told or read to us as soon as we are old enough to understand them and the desire lasts until death. There are few phrases more powerful than, “tell me a story.”
Some stories have been around for thousands, if not millions of years. They have been refined over time and are now written down to make them more accessible, but many of the great stories began with the oral tradition.
In a similar way, our lives unfold as stories. One event happens after another and sometimes we can even recognize a connection between two events. Perceiving these connections and trying to understand them is also instinctual. We do it without having to think about it.
The perspective shift occurs when you realize the stories you read are really part of the one true story, the story of our life.
Stories are preparation for how our lives may unfold.
By reading and understanding an author’s plot we make our lives more meaningful. We start to see how the authors’ stories are related to the story of our own lives. With a little effort we might even start to see how the universal stories, the ones that have been alive for years, are still being lived out by us today.
Our connections to those around us are emphasized because we recognize their stories must be similar to our own. Our connections to our ancestors are emphasized because we recognize the problems they faced are similar to those we still encounter. Understanding the impressive power of story we learn that we are not alone.
Characters are mirror images of our internal state.
The characters we encounter are reflections of ourselves. They show us what we would look like in the mirror if you stripped away flesh and bone. The characters we encounter are a reflection of our inner mental states.
You truly know so few people in life. We are hesitant to share our honest mental states. Ironically, we are most hesitant to share these states with people we care about. Reading can fill this gap. Reading can provide mental states you would not otherwise be privy to. From your reading experience you can understand that the characters’ stories are not unlike your own.
Look at reading as a tool to enhance your perspective. Use reading to learn how your mental states look in the mirror. Use reading to understand your personal search for understanding is unique, but not a lonely endeavor.
Others have made the journey before you and lived to tell about it. They are labeled by their pursuits: authors, artists, philosophers, and musicians. Let story help align your perspective toward your pursuit. They have found a creative outlet to express their emotions and anxieties. Our goal is to find the same
Modern Man Needs Books
We are modern. We deal with the immense power provided by technology and with our place in a rapidly advancing society. Part of being modern is admitting you are unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you’re expected to do. To engage in the process of coming to terms with these modern realities you must read.
In “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, Thomas C. Foster explains, “every culture has its own body of myth that can explain things that other disciplines can not. This is some of the most meaningful literature to spend time on.” Modern Philosophy is too engaged with semantics to be the answer. Literature is now the way we learn to deal with our modern predicament. Let’s look at three examples.
Farming and Ranching Were Once the Ways We Exercised Dominion Over Plants and Animals
According to Henry David Thoreau ancient poetry and mythology suggest husbandry (the cultivation of plants and animals) used to be a sacred art. The methodical tilling of ground in preparation for planting combined with the use of animals for just the right purpose were worshiped. They were the object of ceremony and ritual. Husbandry was a way we exercised dominion over plants and animals.
Most of us no longer farm or ranch. Many that still do perform the task as corporations primarily motivated by creating excess to sell for wealth. Without an idea of where we fit in the “food chain” we lose touch with reality. This is a modern predicament. Think about this, though, in the case of a food shortage who do you want in charge of the food supply? Someone who has read “The Grapes of Wrath” or someone who thinks literature is a waste of their time.
Destructive Technology is Our Creation - We Must Read to Manage it Responsibly
Technology is one way we bring our imaginations into the physical world to meet a specific need or desire. We have expansive imaginations and have shown the ability to create what our minds can see. Sometimes, those imaginings are of destructive forces. Nuclear weapons and other “weapons of mass destruction” are more prevalent and feared now than ever.
We need a counterbalance to these forces. We need to spend as much time studying the beauty of our nature as we spend learning how to destroy. I would trust the man with his finger on the nuclear bomb more if he had read “Catch-22.”
Generation Y is now Generation C
Recently, Generation Y was renamed Generation C where C stands for “connected” (arguably D would have been just as valid where D stands for “distracted”). We are defined by our connections. What if those connections are severed, though? What if those connections never form the way they should. What if the very nature of our connections leave us feeling more lonely and depressed than before?
The master of loneliness was David Foster Wallace. He captured its essence because he felt truly alone and depressed, I think. Would you be able to connect to a truly lonely and depressed person better if you’ve read “The Pale King?” Would you be in a better position to understand the impact of even a digital connection if you saw it expressed in literature? I think so.
How Does This All Relate to Perspective?
The scientific evolutionary model tells us we are animals. Our minds tell us something different. We perceive ourselves as capable of adaptation, more intelligent, and more artistic than animals. If our perceptions are true we should act like it. We should exercise those skills which make us different. Creative thinking is our evolutionary niche.
Reading leads to understanding which leads to new perspective. New perspective might teach you how to live in a modern world where we no longer struggle to survive, but instead struggle with how to think and feel. New perspective can show you how to deal with powerful technology in a responsible way. New perspective can teach you how to connect in a world filled with constant interaction.
The next time you think to yourself, I am nothing, I have nothing to offer, or I am wasted space, turn to a book. Instead of feeling lost attempt to understand your place in the world. One beautiful and true sentence can bring you back. It can help you to know your place among plants, animals, and neighbors.
Your imagination is creativity’s womb. By using your imagination you can create anything. This is a power that must be wielded responsibly. You should read to know how to use that power.
You Can Create Worlds
I want you to try something. First, read this paragraph to the end to get the idea. Now, close your eyes. Keep them closed for one minute or as long as you can spare and imagine a new world. Any new world that comes to mind is fine. There are no rules. What does it look like? What does it feel like? Can you smell anything? Taste? Use all your senses.
Now I want you to really think about this question: is what you imagine any less real than the television shows you watched last night? or the movie you saw a week ago? Is it more real? In what way?
Through this exercise I hope you realize the difference between having something imprinted on your mind with visual effect and something you have to work to imagine. This distinction is important because it’s easy to fall into the trap of letting others create the world for you. Be careful how much you allow yourself to be influenced by seductive influences that over power your creative thought through direct impact on the senses.
Words Create Worlds as Well
Wittgenstein helps us take our discussion one step further. He says, a new language is potentially a new way to live. Wittgenstein wants you to be reborn, even if just for a moment, in every book you learn something from. For our purposes this means that language and words have a creative effect. They show us how to live and encourage us to adopt a new way of life inspired by the words we’ve read.
Why is this important to us and to Wittgenstein? When you read, worlds are revealed to you. If you understand the writing and believe it enough you might decide the world, or some part of the world, is worth working to bring into existence. Your imagination makes you an active participant in the world. You start to influence your thoughts instead of having them influence you.
How Do You Decide Which World to Bring to Life?
In great writing, a new way to be is revealed. If you choose, you can make that existence your own. Readers know which “selfs” are worth living. The idea behind a liberal arts education is to equip you with the ability to decide which worlds are worth bringing into existence and which are not.
Without books, many of our experiences are chance discoveries. The unpredictable nature of our days makes it hard for us to live up to our creative potential.
Don’t reduce yourself to floatsam and jetsam carried by the waves of daily life. Instead of being a passive vessel, influence your thoughts by proactively exposing yourself to new ideas.
Are There Any Limits to Your Power?
It is a western idea that man has no limits except for those he self-imposes and to make this idea real western man has written many books. Indulge in that power.
Here’s the thing though, the modern western reader isn’t the chosen one. He doesn’t have special powers or abilities. He will hear no voice commanding him to act in any special way.
He is, instead, blessed with the same power as everyone else. The power to influence his own thoughts. The only question is whether he will choose to use it.
Reading reveals the power of imagination. The new perspective gained by the active selective use of the imagination is life altering. Read to know how to create worlds and then how to choose which ones you bring into existence. Read to understand that you can actively influence your thoughts and, in doing so, bring the world you choose to imagine into existence.
Maybe it’s not enough to just read and move on. Maybe what Wittgenstein, Hesse, and Wordsworth are suggesting is that we should live what we read and let it work on our lives.
Start defining yourself through your reading experiences. If you do, you might just find a whole new way to live.