Why Do We Read?

Why do we read? In her recent book, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, Maureen Corrigan responds that we read“…to set off on a search for authenticity. We want to get closer to the heart of things and sometimes even a few good sentences…can crystallize value feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or sometimes, profound epiphanies.”

Harold Bloom in How to Read and Why concurs. “Ultimately we read—as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree—in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests.” Yes, we don’t have an easy time knowing ourselves. Sometimes a good book makes our task a little easier, to say nothing of the multiple pleasures it provides.

We read ourselves into literature without concern, as we are in science, for whether or not it is true for others, and if so, for how many and to what degree. Instead, the truth of any literary expression is immediately true for the reader because it corresponds to his or her experience or provides a language for it in a way that had not been available before.

In a letter to Melvin Tumin published in this week’s New Yorker, Saul Bellow expressed the relationship between literature and science this way, “The work of an artist…sets up the hypotheses and tests them in various ways, and it gives answers but these are not definite. However, they need not be definitive; they sing about the human situation.”

Yes, we might say, that is true for me, true to my own experience. This is my story. I have no idea if it is anyone else’s story. But it is the way the way I felt. Or I had not realized its truth until I saw it on the page. That is what a good book is all about, what I seek in a good book anyway and because they are not hard to find, why I keep reading.

Of course, there are more personal reasons why we read, reasons that are not always acknowledged and that change over time, especially for those who have read from their youth. A friend has written to me:

“There is no one answer as to why I read. I first read from loneliness. I read from desperation and to fill my empty time. I had no friends, no playmates. Books were like insulation—filling the empty spaces, protecting me from the chill of loneliness.”

Again Harold Bloom has written: “Imaginative literature is otherness and as such alleviates loneliness.” Does reading literature really have this effect? I am dubious. Enjoying the company of my literary friends is not the same as lessening my isolation. Indeed, sometimes great literature makes me feel all the more isolated when I realize that I will never be able to create such a story or think so brilliantly as the author of the book.

A character can startle and provoke me by something he says and I can derive some consolation from our common views. Yet knowing I am not alone in my belief is one thing, loneliness is something else and its reduction bears no necessary relationship to the recognition of shared belief.

My friend continues, “As I got older, I needed an escape, not only from loneliness, but from my limited surroundings. I read to see other places, to meet other people, to become a larger person. Life didn’t seem to be helping me with this goal, so I turned to books. I felt wise, worldly-wise. I knew the thief, the adulterer, the junky. I’ve always felt an urgent need to experience everything. Yet I am timid at reaching for actual experience. Call it what you will—fearful, cowardly, nervous--I prefer to take much of life at second hand. This has led to some odd contrasts in my life—such as the wide knowledge I had of sex before I had experienced so much as a kiss.”

She concludes, “Now, why do I read? I read for all of these reasons and more. I read to find my own unexpressed thoughts. I read to find answers. I read to find questions. A life without answers is an anxious one. A life without questions is a deadly boring one…”

How eloquent. How wonderful to know that there are others who read for the questions not caring so much if they are answered but simply for the pleasure of thinking about them for a while. And how rare to hear someone speak so honestly about why they read.

Why people read is a mystery and why people read what they read is even more mysterious. In the final analysis it is a highly personal thing and I think it is good to ask yourself these questions every once in a while.