I attend a lot of writing workshops and webinars, and one perennial focus of the big presenters is, “Why should anybody read your book? Why read any book?” The answers to that question generally fall into two categories–we read for education (The Seven Secrets… The Insider’s Guide…. The Successful Person’s…), and we read for entertainment. (The Midnight Library; The Boys From Biloxi; Red, White, and Royal Blue…)
Those are valid answers, and one reason I love a well written biography is that it can do both–educate and entertain. But is that really all there is to reading? All there is to us as readers? We’re either improving our minds and lives with new information, or we’re indulging in a little recreation to fortify us/reward us for all the improvements and efforts lying ahead?
For me, it’s not that simple. How do you describe the feeling of coming out on top, after terrible disappointments and set backs, against all odds, when it really, really mattered, and you were terrified and despairing, because you had to change who you thought you were in order to honorably prevail? That plot has inspired countless tales, from The Mighty Ducks, to To Kill a Mockingbird, to It’s a Wonderful Life, to Sara Crewe.
We read those stories for entertainment, but entertainment doesn’t stay with you for decades, providing encouragement, inspiration, and fresh perspectives. The great spiritual teachers didn’t turn to parables, fables, jatakas, and myths because they hoped for a lot of positive reviews on Amazon. They wanted to impart concepts and viewpoints that couldn’t be accurately conveyed or given adequate impact without the mysterious power of story.
A young adult novel that captures the wonder and pain of coming of age, a romance that makes falling in love credible and lovely, a thriller that puts us in the shoes of reluctant super-spies taking on long odds… I believe we read these stories because they affirm that human experience is not, cannot be, and should not be reduced to a set of rational syllogisms or theories soon to be proven.
A sunset isn’t merely some colors that happen in the sky along certain wavelengths at certain hours in specific weather conditions. It’s a farewell, a surrender, a sigh, a symbol of mortality, a harbinger of respite, and much, much more.
The Enlightenment moved us forward in a lot of ways–technologically and socially– but it also cost us in the sense that miracles, mysteries, and numinous experiences all lost ground to the rational and measurable. I think it’s for precisely this reason that popular fiction (along with Protestant evangelical movements) blossomed just as Enlightenment thinking gained control of government, education, and commerce.
We are more than students in need of education, or economic drones who must be humored with escapist entertainment. To me, good stories affirm the wondrous potential of our nature, give it voice and inspiration, and resonate with that magnificence inside each one of us.
I read for entertainment and edification, but I also read for hope, for inspiration, for affirmation, and for reasons too big and too personal to ever find adequate expression in a few words. All I know is, when science, religion, and sheer determination have failed me, good books–a few of them now subject to bans in some jurisdictions–have kept me from giving up.
Why do you read?
NB: This post was inspired by an essay from the pen of newlywed Adam Mastroianni.