Why Do We Read?

by Joshua H. Liberatore

The question of what motivates us to stare at pages of composed text for hours at a time is a worthy investigation, one that can be approached from a number of different perspectives ranging from the philosophical to the ordinary. One nuance to consider is that the question doesn’t ask for an individual rationale for reading’s purpose but rather a more general justification, something that might help to explain the urge, necessity, or compulsion to read more globally.

    It would be too easy for me to answer the question about my own reading habits and motivations because I read for very clear purposes: enjoyment, escape, enrichment, and, of course, political and cultural awareness. But I think reading in general might be explained better as a vehicle for understanding the human condition in all its particular colors and shades of experience. We read because books have something to communicate to us and we are eager to absorb it, anxious to consume it, ready (though often ill-equipped) to understand it. We read because we are tagged homo sapiens sapiens ( “man who knows who knows” ): our thirst for knowledge is both self-conscious and physiologically determined. We are beset by a world waiting to be discovered, and books provide us one possible means of entry into an intimate knowledge of the complex situations in which we find ourselves.

    Supposing that reading – like the making of art or music, neither of which clothes, feeds, or protects us from violent death – also fulfills a basic evolutionary function, we might do well to consider why human language is so particularly suited to graphic representation and, well, why we take the trouble to arrange our words in writing. Even as we may feel dismay at the alarm bells suggesting a general decline in reading in an age dominated by the power of image and computer animation, we also can’t help but recall that reading has survived dark eras in the past. The odds indicate that reading will likewise survive reality TV and Grand Theft Auto. Our genetic birthright in the class of high primates with a penchant for communication dictates as much. Its continued practice, despite mounting distractions, shows that reading somehow helps our species to survive and flourish.

    Putting aside reading’s niche in the grand scope of biology for a moment, let’s consider some short- or near-term factors. If we are moved to read on the species-scale for some mysterious reason, in quotidian terms, we are often asked or compelled to read for more utilitarian or mundane purposes. In fact, sometimes (and too often this is the case) reading becomes a means to an end. We read to accomplish some purpose; we read because we must in order to achieve some bureaucratic function; we read because we must get from one place to another; or we read because we are lost, confused, misunderstood, and lonely; we may even read to escape some more pressing reality, to find some refuge in a fictional or imaginary universe. We may read to avoid responsibility, to evade conversation, to explore a different, more appealing world than the one in which we live. All of these reasons have some value, but they don’t fully explain the experience of reading and all of the hidden potentialities it may unlock for our hearts and minds – that something magical, even ineffable obtains in the questions invoked by a good, solid dose of worthwhile reading.

    Reading is an activity that asks us to step outside our normal plane of experience and develop a new perspective on what’s at stake. In a story, or a poem, or a long, complicated novel, we are engaging a fictional universe that in many ways confronts us with some strange, unfamiliar shapes and images. We step into the minds of peculiar personages and, for a moment anyway, we are asked to involve ourselves in their experiences, so often alien, or even diametrically opposed, to our own. In some ways, this is a positive intellectual exercise because it requires us to transcend the ordinary and become intimate with the extraordinary (even when certain realistic details “hit home”). In other ways, reading can become a profoundly – still positively, productively – alienating experience that shatters our preconceptions and destabilizes our sense of normalcy. We seek that transcendent, destabilizing enterprise because something tells us it’s healthy and proper, even necessary.

    We read sometimes against our will, against our greater desire to lie in our beds and stare at the ceiling. Why do we do that? In any honest assessment, even an addict like me must confess that reading is often a chore, a struggle, and especially when reading something difficult, uncomfortable or unsavory; we must grapple with the text, wrestle with the words, and we beat ourselves up to get inside what the author is trying to communicate. When we experience these initial pangs of displeasure, we may groan and sigh, we may cringe at the prospect of finishing the article, the story, or the novel and wonder privately (and sometimes aloud) what profit there is in the enterprise. And yet, just as often as we give up and toss the newspaper, magazine, or novel aside, some small but forceful voice inside us cries out a plea to continue, to persist, to make it to the end. And many times we listen to that voice, heed what it demands of us. These are the more peculiar moments of reading (when the whole business may remind us of strenuous calisthenics or household chores), but somehow we perceive the benefit in the act and it is enough to drive us forward and reach the end, even when that end seems so much less satisfying than the many alternative activities we may believe preferable to the effort of reading.

    When I was younger reading wasn’t something I felt motivated to do on my own time. I was dutiful about reading most of the things my teachers (and sometimes my sister) gave me, but I think I definitely always preferred to be outside, playing baseball and soccer, climbing trees, and in high school, hanging out with friends and playing music or video games. I never doubted that reading was good for me, but I just never seemed to make it a priority unless school demands compelled me otherwise. It was not until I was almost an adult (maybe age seventeen or eighteen) that I really began to appreciate the activity of reading for what it offered on its own terms – not for the grade, not to win free stuff from the public library, not please my parents, but to amuse myself and to learn from all of the exciting treasures that books seemed to contain, one by one, as I discovered those rewards.

    Now, reading has replaced all of those other things that used to be my first-choice activities, and I find myself talking myself into playing sports, taking long walks, or spending time with friends (no longer under the spell of video games of course) in much the same way I used to convince myself that reading was a fun thing to do. Perhaps I’m exaggerating here, for I certainly retain my appreciation for all of those non-literary activities, which have only in turn gained greater meaning through the world I am able to explore through reading. It’s possible that those more basic pleasures – our physical or social engagements with the non-textual world – once refracted through a sensitivity honed by quiet, contemplative, sedentary reading, emerge refined and improved, more comprehensively human. Maybe it’s with that rich reward in mind that, ultimately, we keep reading.

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One Response to Why Do We Read?

  1. Dave Lundeen says:

    An enjoyable “miscellaneous musing,” or perhaps more highfalutin-ly, a fine personal essay. Your last paragraph was especially resonant with how my own attitude toward reading has evolved as I have aged into my thirties, and puts me in mind of Erasmus’s famous quotation about what he does when he gets a little money, which is sadly one of the only things I know about Erasmus (and thus another spur to future reading).

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