̶W̶h̶y̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶ —W̶h̶y̶ ̶w̶e̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶ Why I read books
This week, I’m going to outline the reasons ̶ y̶o̶u̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶ — ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶ I have valued reading as much as I have throughout my life, and make a continual effort to do so despite my shortening attention span and penchant for instant gratification — or perhaps because of it.
When I say read, I refer to reading long-form fiction: usually novels, though novella and short stories serve similar purposes. I would have used the term literature, but I have had limited experiences with drama or poetry (I suspect that most of the arguments I make would apply), and I would have sounded more pretentious than I already do.
The first reason I read is for entertainment. The first reason I read, was also for entertainment. Wasn’t that entertaining? The first ‘chapter books’, as they were called, I read were about Pokémon.
My mother immediately disapproved of these books, and insisted that I read ‘classics’. I was in the first grade Mom, cut me some slack. This started a lifelong (yes, even now) conflict between my mother and I where she would constantly criticize any book I read as ‘lacking in nutrition’ on a good day and ‘trash’ on a bad day.
I quickly progressed from Pokémon to Roald Dahl and E.B. White, Artemis Fowl and ASOUE, often under the covers with a flashlight, fending off my mother’s efforts to get me to read Black Beauty and Anne of Green Gables. Mom, those books are for girls. I did read Little Women recently, and I do regret not reading it when I was younger.
This phase of my life lasted much longer than I suspect it did for most people: I only ever used a laptop on the kitchen table for homework and didn’t own a cell phone until I finished high school, so reading was often my most exciting individual leisure activity. They were tense. They were hilarious. They were romantic. They were epic.
I would always have a book in my desk at school to read during boring classes. I have memories of reading when I was supposed to be doing homework and then quickly hiding the book underneath my textbooks when my mother appeared, in high school.
To this day, I still read primarily for pleasure. I’m a staunch believer in dropping a book if I’m not enjoying it by the time I’m finished a quarter. But Chris, you say, what if I don’t enjoy reading? To that, I say you’re reading the wrong books. A well-written book can be just as thrilling as a Korean movie, just as funny as an internet meme, just as relaxing as a yoga session, just as engaging as a video game, and better than TV in all aspects. I’m kidding ̶, ̶I̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶n̶k̶ ̶t̶e̶l̶e̶v̶i̶s̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶g̶r̶e̶a̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶o̶u̶t̶ ̶p̶e̶r̶s̶o̶n̶a̶l̶i̶t̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶o̶r̶ ̶a̶s̶p̶i̶r̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶s̶. If the only things you’ve ever read were the SparkNotes summaries for high school English class, feel free to ask for a few recommendations to get started.
In a bit of a circular argument, another reason I read is so I can get better at reading. There are a litany of texts bemoaning the decline of reading and the supposed benefits of reading ranging from increased memory to improved cognitive ability, but I’m referring to reading comprehension. Not something so plebeian as vocabulary or reading speed improvement, but instead being able to derive more enjoyment from the books that I read.
With every book read, my appreciation for delayed payoff improves, my accumulation of background knowledge grows, my affinity for articulate prose strengthens, and my aptitude for figuring out what is going on in anything literary published after Virginia Woolf started writing inches forward. It’s like understanding the adult jokes in family movies: sometimes it’s a double entendre, sometimes it’s a subversion of expectation, and sometimes it’s staring you in the face but you just weren’t mature enough for it at the time.
More than greater appreciation for the books that I’ve already read, becoming better at reading increases the number of books that I can enjoy. If I read primarily for enjoyment, many books are inaccessible to me because they are not enjoyable. In a few cases, it’s because they’re badly written. In most others, it’s because I don’t quite have the aptitude to read them yet.
Increasing this aptitude is important because it also increases the number of stories available to me. Sure, Romeo and Juliet have had enough modern retellings that there can be a list ranking them, but what about 1984? Ishiguro is accessible enough, but what about Rushdie? To read more books, I need to read more books.
Usually, highly rated restaurants have some degree of experimental fare. And it’s not because they can’t make a burger without deconstructing it or they think a Thai-inspired lasagna tastes significantly better than the original. But if the discerning patron arrives at the restaurant looking for an experience worth their time, then the chef needs to deliver something that the patron hasn’t had before. It’s much easier to surprise than to somehow execute an established recipe better than it’s ever been done, to a degree of magnitude that’ll be noticeable.
It’s the same for me as a reader. As much as I have my preferred authors, endings, and styles, my favourite books have always been ones that have stood out, overturning expectations, yet somehow delivering a better story. But to have something to stand out from and to have expectations to subvert, a baseline level of reading is required. I wouldn’t know why lampredotto is interesting unless I’ve had a standard burger and tripe in hotpot before. And though a chicken club is always appreciated for lunch, slow-cooked tripe burgers surprised me the first time I had it, and went on to become something I think of going to Florence to eat again.
But the lampredotto burger isn’t for everyone. Most people turn away at the idea of the burger, or when they first see the greyish mass emerge, speared from a large stockpot smelling of wet barn. Some of the ones who do give it a chance will choke down a bite or even the whole thing, and even claim to enjoy the experience, but won’t go back for seconds.
It’s not that the people who savoured it are some how superior to the ones that don’t. Lampredotto is Florentine street food, eaten by people throughout the social strata. There’s no need to try the burger if it looks unappetizing. Pizza and pasta are abound, with enough variety to satisfy every palate. If the idea of eating tripe fills you with horror, you’re probably not going to enjoy it. But the initiated that appreciate the lampredetto burger do have one unforgettable experience that will forever remain with their memories of Florence.
Likewise, what’s the point of reading books that you won’t enjoy? It’s not a requirement to read the same way it is to eat, and it’s much harder to pick up a book with all the modern instant gratification available on-demand. Claiming to have enjoyed your lampredotto burger without actually having done so is like claiming to enjoy the Divine Comedey without actually having done so. People will be impressed, but you’ll know that you didn’t.
But you want to be able to enjoy the lampredotto burger, because I bring it up every time I mention my semester abroad, which is quite often. However, the sight of it is enough to make you queasy. So you start off with slightly more adventurous foods such as lighter offal, gamey meats, and rubbery foods like cuttlefish and octopus, sticking to the ones that you enjoy first. Eventually, the idea, sight, and smell of the burger won’t be so frightening anymore, and the lampredotto can be attempted. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you still won’t like it. But after preparing to eat it, you’re in a qualified position to pass a personal judgement. Maybe you’ll enjoy it next time you’re in Florence.
On the other hand, books require immense activation energy to start and tremendous time commitment to finish. What makes reading a lot easier, is if the books are enjoyable. The story and all the purported benefits to your empathy and creativity are also stickier if you enjoyed the book, then an added bonus to your leisure time.
To conclude, let’s briefly touch on the importance of stories. Varied scientific literature has always purported that reading imparts a cornucopia of advantages to the reader. Gaiman says in his famous forward that “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Harari claims in his breakout novel, Sapiens, that humans have evolved to what we are today because of our singular ability to tell stories and believe in them.
Regardless of the veracity of these dubious claims, I collect one more story with each novel I read. I know of another series of events that didn’t happen, but could have all the same. I meet new characters and can call upon the plot of one like an old friend. I can relate more easily and convey ideas more simply to people who have read the same story. The story becomes mine after I read it.
I find that this mental library of stories is one of my greatest treasures. They provide a frame of reference for understanding events that I haven’t experienced. They help me make connections to ideas that aren’t mine. They teach me how to manage emotions I’m not accustomed to. Perhaps most importantly, when I do find myself in a bad spot, they remind me that there’s some good in the world, and it’s worth fighting for.
That is why I read.