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?