Why Do You Read?

I Read Because We’re All Storytellers — It’s Human Nature, After All.

BarnImages offers free, high-quality photos.

“Why do you read?”

This is quite possibly one of my favourite questions ever. It’s not quite philosophical, yet draws out a response from that very uncomfortable, quiet area that almost never sees the light because of how introspective and invasive this question really is.

(My initial response was why wouldn’t I read? then I realized that probably meant I should answer this question with a drawn out response.)

I read a wonderful essay by Richard Kearney titled Where Do Stories Come From?, the first chapter of “On Stories” (2002) a great collection of thoughts and ideas concerning the ideas of philosophy, narrative and where it all fits in with the human experience. He opens beautifully with a powerful statement:

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living. They are what makes our condition human.

I need a moment to gather my thoughts and my feelings because they tend to just scatter whenever I read great statements.

You might notice that he starts off by talking about “telling stories.” Where does reading fit into the picture? Reading is not necessarily a completely natural human ability; it took time and effort to develop languages to the point of cohesive words as opposed to symbols or oral history. The importance in telling stories, however, lies in the fact that there will always be stories to tell. They’re just well-documented now and so easily accessible.

In the most detached way possible, Wikipedia explains what reading is:

Reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning (reading comprehension). It is a means of language acquisition, of communication, and of sharing information and ideas.

Wow — boring — but think about how innovative and exclusive reading was at the time writing was invented. No — really think about it. The necessity for writing gave way to reading, but what exactly gave way for writing? I’m going to skip ahead, past the ancient number writing, and talk a little bit about story telling, oral history, and the privilege of reading.

Time for a story about stories. Prior to the written word, people would tell stories. Probably around a fire, in groups or simply sharing ideas via word of mouth so that the idea could travel. When I tell you a story, you listen, then we probably talk about it. When we speak, we like to recount tall tales to make ourselves seem more interesting, or we like to dramatize and then ask for advice on whether we made good decisions. We use our present moment to recall our past, using this process of recollection to form more of an idea of where we came from. That seems a little deep for a story about why you went to get pizza yesterday, but generally, that’s the underlying reason why you might share a story with somebody else.

This has not necessarily changed since the beginning of time. Kearney sums it up in saying that every story “shares the common function of someone telling something to someone about something” (5). We are always a “someone” in any instance of storytelling. In reading, we are learning about something or hearing of something for the first time. A good example of this is in religion, where some might read scriptures or sacred texts to glean some kind of solution about a problem they might have, or perhaps just some kind of insight into a thought they don’t really understand. We want to decode, understand, and then share our human experiences because of how human they are. We have always wanted and needed to do this because we’re very self-conscious about the things we don’t know and don’t understand. A storyteller is not quite different from a reader or listener. There is that mutual understanding that both parties are trying to get something out of the experience. An author presents their novel or essay to the public in hopes of sparking conversation, generating new/old ideas and just sharing their own personal feelings. All they ask in return is that the reader uses imagination and an open mind to enhance their own human experience.

In other words and the most dramatic way possible, here is my favourite academic, Northrop Frye, and his thoughts on literature — an excerpt from The Educated Imagination:

Literature as a whole is … the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell.

Capturing these thoughts and ideas of the human experience are hard enough, so they take the form of stories. In oral storytelling, it was easy to change things around to fit a specific storyteller. Listeners would then be able to pass the story on to the best of their own abilities, which is the basis of folklore. Stories solve problems that we didn’t even know we had. We read today because our problems are not too different from the problems of the past; our problems have simply adapted to our times and the new technology.

Living in a well-developed country and growing up in a well-educated household, I cannot express how much of a privilege it is to be taught to read at a young age. It is so natural that it is taken for granted. Reading wasn’t always available to a wide spread of people though. It is a skill we often take for granted. As I am reading this while writing — as you read this later on — it is so simple for us to bring up articles, essays, and books to our convenience. We think of a time where only those who had extensive wealth were taught to read because education was a status symbol. I encourage people to research the history of literacy because it’s always really fascinating whenever it comes up in historical courses.

Reading helped me adapt to Canada. I had moved from Singapore when I was four and a half years old and I was constantly unsure of myself. I read books until I was reading books from the Harry Potter series at five and a half, and suddenly found myself ahead of the curve in first grade. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the first book I really loved. Reading was exciting and fun. I constantly felt like I was learning something new because of all the words that were presented me. At the time, I wasn’t aware of any deeper introspection, but looking back, I think of all the characters that I chose to love and the ones that I deeply identified with.

I’ve never run out of words to say just as I will probably never run out of things to read. I’m always reading new essays, poetry, and books that I’ve discovered through conversation and recommendations. I love poetry and think so highly of it when I think about the foundations of literature. Returning to the human experience, poetry is such a great form of expressing these ideas in an artful and thoughtful way. You catch glimpses of the people behind these pieces of literature and a little window into the world they lived in. Why is their narrative so important? Both Kearney and Frye are big on the words “narrative” and “imagination” with good reason. Narrative is simply a vehicle for our imagination to formulate new ways of seeing the world not as it is, but as it could be. An alternative. An option.

For the non-believers of fiction and poetry, the same beauty exists in news. I find news articles and opinion pieces fascinating because I think they’re a wonderful reflection of two different kinds of storytelling in journalism, which is a field that defines itself by the real-life experiences of other people.

From the word go, stories were invented to fill the gaping hole within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try to give answers to the great unanswerable questions of existence: Who are we? Where do we come from? — Richard Kearney, “Where Do Stories Come From?”

A complete story answers something: a question we didn’t know we had, generally presented to us in the form of a question or issue posed at the beginning of the story.

Typically, you know what to expect when reading a book or watching a movie. We anticipate “plot twists” because we know these things innately; we are thoroughly intimate with these plot twists because they are a part of us. We generally retell the same stories anyway, just through different vehicles, perhaps disguised as sci-fi, romance, action/adventure. After all, “the aim [of stories is] not so much to invent something that never happened, or to record something that did happen, but to retell a story that had been told many times before” (Kearney).

Whenever somebody tells me that they do not have time to read, I’m surprised and a little offended because — at the risk of sounding archaic — how do you not find time to read?

Then I think: Realistically, we are so consumed by digital media that it is difficult to put down our phones and sit down with a good book or e-reader for a few hours. Our attention spans might not necessarily be well-equipped any longer to sit and really take in the beauty of a novel, or take attentive notes in a book of essays. In a non-academic situation, there really aren’t many reasons for people to want to read for fun because there are tests, essays, and assignments.

For people who do read for fun, it is sometimes hard to measure the absorption of the text and how much they’re taking in. Are they just reading to pass time? Are the words glossing over in their minds? I don’t know and I don’t ask because I don’t want a debate. I just want people to enjoy books and think of Literature, English, and the other Humanities as more than trivial degrees. It’s so important to remember our humanity and the very essence of why we do the things we do; why we live. I read things outside of textbooks to learn, grow, and self-educate.

So, here’s the takeaway: Stay in school and keep reading a wide variety of genres, styles, and formats.

School and reading for fun are two things that appear to be more and more mutually exclusive.

That’s what frightens me the most.

I am a fourth-year English major at an institution of higher education that values STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math for the uninitiated — above the Arts (I might write about the more problematic aspects of this particular issue another time). It’s not just in my particular university however; this is a concerning trend in today’s work and school environments…to say the least without going too much into this such that it detracts from everything else in this post.

Book References

Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Toronto: House of Anansi Press. 1997. Print.

Kearney, Richard. On Stories. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Thoughts on Media is a community publication, curated by ReadThisThing. Follow us on Medium or check out our newsletter.