Sunday, 2 June 2013

Why Do We Read? by Gill Stewart

The idea for this blog came from Linda’s recent post For Whom Do You Write? which got me pondering on all sorts of fascinating topics such as the value of enjoyment, snobbery in literature, books versus films, to name but a few!

I realised that a lot of my thoughts came back to the question Why Do We Read?  Not why should we read, but why do we?  I came up with the following list of reasons:

  1)      For enjoyment.  This is purely to be entertained, to pass the time in a fun way.
  2)      For experience or self-improvement.  I put this in because I couldn’t find a better explanation for why I read poetry.  Sometimes I don’t even enjoy reading it, but a good poem gives you a glimpse of something different, something new.  This isn’t the same as 3), where something definite is gained.
  3)      To gain information.  I also separate this from 4) below as here I mean information for information’s sake, because it is something that interests us and we want to know it with no particular end purpose in mind.
  4)      To acquire knowledge for a particular purpose, e.g. reading for work or to pass an exam.
  5)      For the sake of appearance or status.  This might seem an odd reason for reading (it is to me!) but I’m sure we’re all familiar with the person who ‘only reads a book if it has been on the Booker list’ or buys a certain type of book in order to leave it artfully lying around the house. 
These categories are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.  I read Christina Courtenay’s Trade Winds (above) mostly for enjoyment, but I also derived pleasure from learning about places and customs I was unfamiliar with (eighteenth century Sweden is fascinating).  I am currently reading Virgil’s Aeneid (yes, still, it’s taking a long time!) for a whole variety of reasons including a desire to understand Latin so as to better understand English, for the story, for the poetry and for the exam that I’ll be sitting the week after next.

This great and varied enjoyment is the main reason I would want my children (in fact, all children) to read, and to love reading.  Why, then, do schools insist on introducing young people to books via ‘classics’?  School may well be the only way into reading for children from non-reading homes . How is a self-consciously clever or literary book going to teach them to enjoy reading?  It may, if it is a good story, but so many of the books currently pushed in schools are not.

Take Lord of the Flies for instance.  It is a book that is interesting, that explores various themes and is extremely well-written – but is it enjoyable?  If we want children to think about the psychology of groups and the causes of violence there are other ways to get them to do this, without making it an exercise in putting them off books for ever.

Spies by Michael Frayn is another case in point.  Again, it is written by someone who is a craftsman of the English language, but it is very contrived, setting up mysteries to be solved, introducing themes that are clearly there purely so they can be discussed and written about.  Books like this win prizes, presented by literary, adult writers to other literary, adult writers.  They are not what I would choose to give to a young person in the hope of imbuing them with a lifelong love of reading.

The Harry Potter series, on the other hand, is widely denigrated by the writing establishment (despite the early books winning the ‘Smarties’ Children’s Book Prize 3 years in a row – voted for by children).  They say it is too accessible that the language is clumsy and not challenging.  Yes, but it is brilliant entertainment!  It is a story that makes the child enter an imaginary world where their own imagination still has to do so much of the work (think of the Hogwarts you saw in your mind’s eye when reading versus the Hogwarts that is presented to us fully-formed on the cinema screen).  It teaches empathy, explores the battle of good and evil, not to mention masses of magic, a lot of adventure and a little romance. 

I think what I am trying to say is that there are many reasons for reading, all valid in their own way.  But if we put children off reading before they even start, they are missing out on so much: on the enjoyment of a good book, on the incredible amount of knowledge that is out there.  Reading has been likened to a conversation with people you’ve never met and maybe never will, who perhaps died centuries ago, but their thoughts and discoveries and stories are still there for us to access.  But only if we are not put off reading!

Why do you read?  And how do you think we can get others to read more – if indeed you think we should?


  1. A thought-provoking post, Gill. I don't know why I read - all of the reasons you suggest I suppose. More pertinent might be the question of why don't people read? A few times I've found myself in houses where there are no books and it just feels as though something is wrong.

    1. Good question Jennifer. I really find it hard to contemplate not reading but like you I do know peoploe who have no books. I wonder if i dare ask them why?

  2. I read for enjoyment mostly, sometimes for information, never for reasons of snobbery (not any more!). But what I might enjoy, others can't engage with. I don't get a lot of pleasure from a lot of 'popular' fiction because I don't enjoy the language much. But I do enjoy a really well-told story sometimes, if it's gripping enough, even though it's not up there in the Man Booker stakes. Lee Child is one example (though like all authors in this genre, his work is wearing thin. Seems to be an occupational hazard.

    Should we get people to read more? Yes,yes and yes!

    Reading opens the imagination. A good book to me is one where II hate getting to those words THE END.

    Thanks for this stimulating post, Gill! And good luck with that exam!

    1. I suppose it's a good thing that we don't all engage with the same books - but as long as we enjoy them that's the main thing.

  3. Reading has given me pleasure all my life - well since age 5. I was one of those children who always had her 'head in a book'. I read the cereal packets when I couldn't have a book at the breakfast table!
    I read for research, which I guess is your number 4, Gill, but mostly I read for pleasure (though research is enjoyable, too) and I read what I want to read and not what the literary world tries to dictate.
    I can't imagine what it must be like not to read, not to have books in my life.
    Hope the exam goes well.

    1. I remember being told to 'get my head out of that book and go and do something useful' - were you told that too Mary? I vowed never to say that to my children but occasionally failed (even for me there is more to life than reading!). I tried not to be too down on computer games for the same reason - they were learning things from them even if i thought they were rubbish. However, I could never quite believe they were learning anything useful...

  4. I came across this quote in a Steven Pinker book I'm reading and thought it very thought provoking for both readers and writers:
    'The fundamental purpose of tragedy... was claimed by Aristotle to be the awakening of pity and fear, of a sense of wonder and awe at the human potential, including the potential for suffering; it makes an assertion of human value in the face of a hostile universe.' (Cambridge Encyclopedia).
    I haven't really enjoyed tragedy since the joyful emotion of reading Anna Karenina in my teens, but this explanation sort of makes sense.

  5. If I don't have a book to hand I feel the way a smoker must when there are no cigarettes! It's an addiction- that's for sure.At some level I think it's about understanding ourselves better -we hope through the written word and the perspectives of others we can gain new insights into what makes us tick as individuals.

    1. I'm addicted too, Myra - and it's one addiction I'm glad to have passed on. Older son gets panic-stricken in only 2 situations: when he doesn't have a book to hand and when he doesn't have his iPod to hand. Which links in with Bill's comments on reading and music...

  6. I'm with Jennifer - the real question is 'why don't people read?' It's the art form (along with music, perhaps), that frees your imagination most completely. Unless the writing's rubbish, you don't get the artist's heavy hand pointing you towards conclusions, attitudes, interpretations of the world - he/she is more subtle then that. He/she provides the raw materials, even the story, but what it becomes as you read it yourself belongs to you. Perhaps your experience of it reflects exactly that of many other readers but you're not aware of that; as you read, you're recreating that reality as a unique event. I'm not suggesting the writer doesn't use his/her skills to influence your interpretation but how far you accept them, buy into the vision etc. is up to you. Reading is a creative experience.

    As for reading tragedy, I love it. Not because I'm a miserable git or a sadist, but because the nobility which is an integral part of it (even tragedies involving figures less elevated than those Aristotle listed as essential) is inspiring, uplifting - and also because it's perhaps the most powerful way of questioning the self-satisfaction of belief systems an d public morality.

    But I also need to read books which make me laugh.

    1. Thanks Bill, v interesting comments. I compltely agree that reading is a creative experience but haven't thought about it in exactly those terms. Which perhpas means that some people don't read because they don't want or aren't able to be creative in that way? I don't want to believe that's true, but I'm really not sure.

  7. Really interesting post, Gill, and especially some of the comments. I don't know about the rest of you, but since being published I've started to read with an editor's eye. I've just finished a book that came highly recommended (won't say what and by whom because it's not kind to do so) but I ended up almost screaming at it. I think if I read 'she said, softly', 'he said softly' once, I read it at least 50 times.
    I read more when I have something on my escape from worry and reality...:)
    I shared Jenny's FB post about this...:)

  8. Thanks Linda. Yes, reading to escape life and its worries is very important. I have specific books for this - Chalet School and any Georgette Heyer always help!