A blog for everything bookish

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Why I read

As part of my withdrawal from book buying, and in a lulled moment during my recent holidays, I got to thinking about why it is that I read. I mean, think about it: it doesn't make a lot of sense. What I love to do, what I spend a ridiculous amount of time doing, is sitting quietly reading words that someone else, someone I'll likely never meet, has written about an imaginary world filled with imaginary people suffering imaginary trials or dramas or loves or triumphs. Looking at it baldly, reading novels as an activity teeters on the edge of ridiculous. And yet I can't live without it. To separate me from my books seems...well it would be like separating me from a foot. I could live without it, but my experience of life would be diminished by its loss.

Now it's not like reading is the only thing I do. I have many interests in diverse and sometimes obscure subjects, and in many of these interests I am nothing more than a wide-eyed enthusiastic amateur, but reading is different, it has a special place. It is the one thing which has been with me throughout my life and which I cannot remember ever not doing. Now I know, logically, of course there was a time when I didn’t read, no one is born with their home language etched ready into their brain although it is doubtless that the ability to decipher it is already hard-coded, but when I think about my life there has always been me and always a book. Different books, perhaps, but a book all the same.

I even remember exactly when it was that I became a 'reader'. That is someone who compulsively reads as opposed to those who read as one of their many activities and hobbies. In this respect I mean a reader, when reading becomes a part of that person’s identity. As it is a part of mine. I am not entirely sure what age I was, though I must have been either six or seven years old. I was in Miss Crowshaw’s class and I had progressed well enough with my reading to move from the ‘Village With Three Corners’ series to books of my own choosing. I went to the book shelf and chose a book, an abridged (most heavily, I am sure) version of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur and I read it and a magical, entrancing world opened up to me. I remember walking from my seat and putting it back on the shelf and rifling through the bookcase for more stories from the Greek myths. I even asked the teacher. I was hooked.

From that point onwards, I have always been a reader. It is part of who I am. Where I am, there are books. Often they are in my hand, or in my bag, or somewhere in close proximity. My house is groaning with them (but there is room for more). During my lunch hour, I like to go into the library. Or Waterstones. I don’t often buy anything, but it is soothing walking past the rows of books, rifling my fingers across the spines, reading titles, picking one up and putting it down. I glory in secondhand bookshops. There is a secondhand bookshop close to where I live, I am not often home early enough to visit it. It is a small shop, a converted terraced house and every space is cluttered with books. They are on every wall, piled up on the floor and on tabletops and under table tops and on the stairs and everywhere. It has that marvellous musty, dusty-slightly-mildewed smell that old books have. The air is always near damp and the pages, when I turn them, are cold. There are old volumes behind glass. A stack of the original Penguin paperbacks in their traditional faded orange and off-white covers. One of the best things, aside from finding a book you want to buy (which is always the best part) is that whenever you buy more than one book the owner always gives a discount. As though paying £1.00 or £1.99 or even £2.50 for a book were not cheap enough. The owner, too, is a book lover. You can tell. Whenever I visit the shop he is always reading. He is always pleased when someone turns up at the counter with a handful of books. Book lovers, I find, are also book sharers.

All this is very interesting, but it doesn’t solve the mystery of why I read. This was the question that puzzled me when I was lying in bed at 2am thinking about all the things that spark my interest. That I am a reader, a book lover, is undeniable. The evidence is everywhere about me, I can’t help but read, I must read every day. But why? What is it about reading that draws me in?

If you read around you'll find a myriad of reasons why people read, and there's a wide extremity of reason (though I wonder if this isn't just a common side effect of doing research on the internet - inevitably you will find rationales from one extreme to another and everything in between, which basically means that internet research is useless) from 'I just do, get over it' to 'I read because reading is the most noble activity in the world and anyone who doesn't read is mentally inferior to me, so there'. In between those there are a few common themes which tend to crop up. From my hours of research, these are the common ones:

Perhaps a little obvious, but many people cite learning as being their reason for reading. It is true, certainly, that the printed word has extended our ability as a species to collect, record and disseminate knowledge. Reading enables us to learn new skills, to develop our understanding of the world and how we fit within it, to share ideas. Through books we can learn to unpick the universe from the atom to the galaxy, we can learn about different species, about things that threaten our safety and how to protect ourselves from them. We can learn about different kinds of people, different places, different cultures. We can learn different ways of thinking. Most importantly, we can do these things in an environment in which we are safe. We do not have to go on an aeroplane to learn about Japan. We do not have to visit the Arctic to learn how cold and inhospitable it is there (though I am sure that you would learn it much more quickly in the flesh) or how necessary and fragile it is. We do not have to expose ourselves to radiation to learn its effects and we do not have to travel back in time to understand and avoid the mistakes of our ancestors, or appreciate pivotal moments in our history. Thanks to books we do not have to remake the wheel with each passing generation. The danger in this, of course. is that each generation loses skills which the passing generation takes for granted. This is the nature of progress. Thanks to books, those skills can be relearned (though not if you have an e-reader. e-readers are about as useful as an electric toothbrush, come the zombie apocalypse), returned to as and when we need.

I get a little internal shudder every time anyone mentions reading for 'escapism'. I suspect this is a matter of defective thinking on my part, but I can't help but wonder what it is that everyone needs to escape from? The torturer in their basement? The horror of endless episodes of Eastenders (well, maybe I understand that one)? Those pesky dinosaurs making the streets perilous at night? In the absence of abuse or real peril, the idea that we in the benign Western world need to 'escape' from our perilously safe lives in which we have almost limitless scope to fulfil ourselves with activities and interaction, in which food is plentiful and nutritious and labour is, in the main, not really that laborious seems a little weird. And are so many people so unimaginative that they require someone else's vision, like a kind of directed daydream, to open up the possibilities of the world, or an imagined world, to open their minds? 

Of course I know that this is wrong thinking on my part, as someone who regards reading as an essential activity anything that encourages the lifting of a book to the eyes is as good thing (I am sure that is also an act of defective thinking: surely I'd draw the line at violence, or some other similarly unlikely extreme). I am also drawn to the idea that perhaps I largely balk at the idea that my reading, in its copious volume, is directed by a need for escapism (which it is not, I assure you. I find life endlessly interesting and, in my pedantic literalism which is often directed quite penetratingly inward, I consider my moments of 'boredom' an abject failure in imagination on my part. The world is a fascinating place, if I can't see it then it's me that is stupid. Imagine being in my head all the time: it's not a pretty place.) and also influenced by my pedantic literalism in which I interpret a statement that someone reads for 'escapism' as meaning 'a desire to escape' when in all probability that's not exactly what they mean. A desire to be entertained, perhaps, to fill an otherwise bland moment, but actual 'escapism'? Probably not.     

In my total rejection of the idea of reading for escapism, I shamefully recall once upon a time when I was young and na├»ve and applying for a place at Oxford University (oh, silly me) to study literature and I had an interview in which I was talking about reading and the interviewer asked me what books I liked to read and I told him ‘David Eddings, Katherine Kerr, fantasy novels and those kinds of things’ and he asked me why I read those books and the answer was, resoundingly, ‘escapism’. Arguably at that point in my life I meant escapism in its literal sense, but I post this here to illustrate that even I am not immune. Needless to say I didn’t get a place at Oxford (thankfully, I’d say, with the benefit of hindsight), but I cannot say that I have never read for escapism so in turn I must accept that it is a reason and has a purpose. Damn. I hate it when I argue myself into a corner. Moving swiftly on... 

Extended thinking
This is an extension, I think, of the category of ‘learning’ but centres more around the idea that reading enables different kinds of thinking. This is one area which spans both fiction and non-fiction; it is not about learning a specific skill, but more about learning to see things differently. Literature allows us insight into other people’s minds, most specifically the mind of the writer but also the imagined mind of the character protagonist. Whether the mind is real (as in philosophical writings) or imagined (as in philosophical fiction...or general fiction) becomes secondary to the believability of the character and the dramas that they face. I think, in many ways, that reading about the challenges and trials of a particular character can help us to prepare ourselves for trials and challenges in our own lives. It is true that literature has changed the very face of humanity. Think about the Bible and how its teachings have changed, or perhaps reflected, the philosophy of the Western world. Think about the Koran. Many of the most successful religious philosophies have been transmitted through stories.

This success is not limited to religion either. Think about the impact that a story like To Kill a Mockingbird had, and continues to have, on people’s perception of prejudice against people of colour (or lack of colour, in the case of Boo Radley). Think about the impact of stories like The Golden Notebook or The Woman Destroyed on the rise of feminism. These stories reflected their times, and did so with such success that passing on these stories, through the study of literature, has become a standard activity for our children. Science fiction writers have literally written science: think of the three laws of robotics or the idea of geosynchronous orbit. Both of these started life in science fiction novels. In these cases reading has imagined a different future, and changed people’s thinking.

I think this is the most critical function of reading. Call me an inveterate pleasure-seeker, I read for pleasure consistently. I think many avid readers do. Some people watch TV. Some people play sports. Some people sit on a nice comfy sofa with a cup of tea within easy reach and transport themselves into a different world. I see this as a different activity to escapism, though they are undoubtedly linked, perhaps because I see escapism as a form of leaving behind whereas reading for pleasure involves actively walking towards that different world. People read because they love it. I think this is true for me too.

The idea of reading for necessity first came to my notice on reading Italo Calvino’s excellent if on a winter’s night a traveller. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it (though I have a particular fondness for Calvino’s Mr Palomar, which is the most wonderful series of short little stories that pack a powerful punch). In amongst the disparate thread of ‘a winter’s night’ appears a character called Irnerio, and his view on reading is revealed by this conversation:

“Me? I don’t read books!” Irnerio says.

“What do you read then?”

“Nothing. I’ve become so accustomed to not reading that I don’t even read what appears before my eyes. It’s not easy: they teach us to read as children and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them, intensely, until they disappear.”

I realised then that Irnerio has a point: once you have learned to read you are subject to the tyranny of the written word. You can’t help yourself, you have to read. It is why people read other people’s newspapers over their shoulder on the train. Why billboards appear at roadsides and on the curved, white interior of a tube train. It is why the internet succeeds and why dyslexia, and poor reading skills, are considered such a disability. And yet I can see Irnerio’s point: if you could unlearn to read a certain type of freedom may be achieved. Reading can be of benefit or of detriment. In the right hands (think 1984) words can be used to control, to bend minds to the will of another. Of course it is not just the written word, but one only has to follow a daily newspaper to learn how easily the mind can be turned to a particular path, and that, I think, is true of all of us. Reading can give you the skills to guard yourself against this, but at the same time it is reading that puts you under the threat. We are all slaves to the written word. Especially you, reading this right now.

And then on to me. After all this thinking and musing and reflecting I am not sure how much this exercise has really helped me to understand why I read. In this situation I am the mouse in the experiment, I can see the path of the maze but never truly understand the purpose of the experiment. I could say that any of the above is the reason that I read, but in truth I think it is a blend of all of the things I’ve mentioned but, perhaps, most driven by necessity. To me, reading feels like a huge part of who I am, that without books I simply cease to be me. It is a necessity and a pleasure. It enables me to escape, and to discover. It frees and enslaves me. I am Bii. Bii of the books. They own me.