Last week I wrote about reading and religion, which I could also have titled “reading as religion,” which I believe it to be for some people. Some may think that is so for me. While I would maintain that is not so, I’ll leave that judgment up to God and others. I’m too close to the subject. Quite simply, I do love reading.
In searching through the nearly eight years of posts on this blog, I’ve never directly talked about why I read. I’ve certainly touched on it or talked around it, but never directly spoken of why I read. Maybe it is like trying to answer why we love a person. We can give reasons, but then we realize we love someone apart from all those reasons. At our best, we love just because….
If you pressed me though, I could express some of the reasons why I read. I suspect there is more to it than what I write, as other bibliophiles will probably agree.
I love stories. I suspect for most of us, reading started with a love for stories, and that reading was a way to take in a story when there was no one to whom we could say, “tell me a story.” As we grow older, we think of our lives as a story, and perhaps a part of a larger story. Sometimes, reading serves to help me understand the story within which I live, and maybe how I might live within that story. I find that when I read the Bible, but also when I read fiction like Lord of the Rings or All the Light We Cannot See.
I read to understand the world. I love science writing that helps me understand the wonderful world I live in. Even gardening or home repair books can be interesting when I am trying to figure out how best to grow something or fix something. History helps me understand how we got here. Sometimes it is more indirect. It could be the history that led to a particular part of the world being the way it is today. History helps me understand the news–to set it in a bigger context.
Reading stretches and changes the way I view the world. I have a certain way of seeing things. All of us do. And because we are limited, so is my way of seeing the world. I will never be omniscient. The most I can hope for is to cultivate the mental flexibility and empathy to grasp how another might see the world differently, or even imagine a world unlike our own.
Reading also makes sense of my inner world. Perhaps it is a spiritual work that gives words to longings or perplexities. Sometimes a biography reveals a character of courage or grace I want to be more like. Sometimes a work of psychological insight reveals why I can be my own worst enemy.
I read to keep company with great thinkers, some who I’ll never have a chance to meet because they were dead before I was ever born. What a wonder that before recording technology, people wrote down their ideas, sometimes refining them in the process, and preserving them in books. Then there are some I’ve met or heard speak and was so intrigued by their ideas that I want to take a deep dive into them, deeper than a lecture or casual discussion.
When I read, I can travel the world without leaving home, a great advantage during a pandemic! If nothing else, I can appreciate how many different ways people approach this thing of making a life.
Then there are the times when I simply want to lose myself in a book. The detective fiction of Louise Penny has gotten me through the pandemic. Instead of all the fears a pandemic could summon, I could imagine for a few hours what it would be like to live in Three Pines. Or in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Or Lothlorien.
Ever since I learned to read, I’ve loved to read. If nothing else, it is a habit. At this point asking me why I read is like asking why I breathe or eat or sleep. It is that much a part of life. There are a number of other associated delightful habits–reading reviews, browsing book sites, wandering around bookstores and book sales, visiting libraries, or even just organizing my TBR pile.
I love that reading is both solitary and social. There are the quiet moments along with a great story or a new insight. Then there are book discussions with others who love the same things, and sometimes help me understand what still perplexes me.
Books and reading are a cultural good worth preserving (one of the objects of this blog!). Like other readers, the one thing that most baffles me is, why people don’t read. But why do I read? It’s all of the above, and yet there’s something beyond that I can’t fully explain. I guess I read just because…