Why Do That?

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.


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20 comments on “Why Do That?

  1. I read because I’m nosy and curious and want all the knowledge. I mostly read fiction these days and I think that’s because I need the help to experience the emotions of others. I’m good with facts but not so good with humans and what they feel. Most of the time I’m not very good with what I feel. Reading has helped me be a better person though I am still in need of improvement. And I am still hopeful I’ll be able to understand others one day.
    I also read to be able to experience places and times that I will never get to visit in real life.
    I worry when I respond to one of your deep essays that I am revealing too much of myself and how shallow I really am. But I’ve decided it’s probably good for me so here I am again. You’re making me think!

    • First, your openness and honesty are appreciated; and second, if anybody should reply to ANY comment in a manner inconsistent with trust and respect, they will be shown the door. We are all bloggin’ buddies here, and we all put our pants on the same way.
      I don’t chime in as often as I’d like (rabbit hole, the same boundary issues you cite), but I READ every comment, and there are a few (among thousands) I’ve 86’d. Also, people will occasionally email me, “I probably shouldn’t have gone on and on about my favorite teddy bear. Can you delete that comment?” and I will delete delete delete, no questions asked.

      I don’t think you are shallow. I think you are wise. It is proven beyond question that reading good fiction makes us more empathetic, whether we’re toddlers, high school students, adulting as best we can, or picking out our rocking chairs (inherited mine from my dad). Your strategy–read for insight into human nature–is tried and true and effect.

      If reading was not an effective way to broaden the mind, widen perspective, and build empathy, we’d probably see a lot less book banning in schools and public libraries, so keep up the good work!

  2. Tsunduko– Japanese word stockpiling books that haven’t been read. I learned this word a few years ago and have given thought to my book collection, dare I say addiction? I don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke anything and don’t stress eat. But,in times of stress I have always surrounded myself, literally and figuratively, with books. I love beautiful format cookbooks, geography and history, genetics and biological sciences books.During the dumpster fire that was 2020 my daughter introduced me to the Regency, and adjacent eras, Romance category of books and now that is my “go to” stress reducer. I have discovered that Blackwells,a most wonderful bookstore in Oxford England, sells books online to the US and doesn’t charge shipping fees. My book addiction sources have expanded!!

  3. Why do I read?
    I read biographies to learn about more about someone.
    I read historical novels and mysteries because I love learning about the past.
    I read contemporary novels for sheer enjoyment
    As you know, I am a fan of series.. historical and contemporary.
    I like to get to know the characters and what makes them tick. And I like visiting new places- small towns, cities, countries.
    I guess I read to learn and because I enjoy it.

    Take care & keep cool!

  4. Wow, what an interesting concept! I’ve not seriously contemplated that before. I do lot of reading for learning, but I also do a lot of reading for pleasure or escape. I am not in touch with my emotions often, but reading allows me to immerse myself in others’ emotions, which I think is good for me! I love a good angsty book.

  5. Why do I read? I’m not sure anyone has ever asked why. Certainly escapism and poor coping mechanisms have been a big part of it.

    However, I see on my “keepers” shelves books I have had, read and re-read since grade school. I find hardbound books of poetry that would have had to be special ordered, gifts from my father’s extended family, gifts to a child who loved words.

    I am too heartsick to really read much right now present company excepted. Grace, you’ve asked a question my mental health needs answered.

    And on another count, the Bible would be banned if the people thumping it had ever read it.

  6. I read to dive into other worlds. When I’m deep into a book, I don’t see the words any more, so I deeply resent poor writing; it wastes my time. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more willing to not finish books I’ve started…

    I also read some poetry for the music and sometimes for the puzzle they present.

    • Oh my goodness! I SO agree with your feelings about poor writing. Some contemporary fiction I’ve read, especially some “erotic” romances, feel cranked-out without much thought. It’s like the authors have a macro for the same old tired phrases that are LIBERALLY used throughout their novels. It became so boring I stopped reading some authors completely. And I personally dislike S&M and that ilk. I like a good, sexy romance as much as anyone, but I prefer a novel with a strong but feminine heroine and strong, honorable men.

  7. Why do you read?

    This is a question I used to ask my 4th grade students. The answers varied as you’d expect: to learn, to see movies in my head, to enjoy a good story, to look at the artwork.

    My own reasons for reading are more complex, I think. I enjoy the actual physical and mental activity that is reading; the mechanics. Letters make words, words make sentences, sentences make ideas on paper come to life. I enjoy the action of reading.

    Then there are the stories. My preferred genre is romance and all of its sub genres. I’m fussy about writing and plot. I need strong characters. I need well-written, grammatically correct text. I connect with the emotion of a story more than the imagery. However, I don’t like overly angsty plots because I read to escape real life.

    I read because I’m fascinated by the process of writing. Actual people think up the ideas, the characters, the problems and solutions of a story. Authors describe how characters take off and do and say things the author
    hadn’t planned. How does that happen? It’s mind boggling. And I get to have my mind boggled on a daily basis!

    • Great comment. I definitely agree. I guess I am more an “in my imagination” person, since I prefer books to movies, and reading to listening (audiobooks).

  8. I read for many reasons, to escape, to learn about other places and times and people that I know little about, for pleasure, and to keep my mind busy and my time occupied since I am quite isolated by health, disability and other circumstances. I like historical fiction, both mysteries and romance, contemporary thrillers and mysteries, action stories and Westerns, and fantasy by some authors. I like non-fiction and biography for a once-in-a-while read. I don’t care much for horror, science fiction, dystopia or a lot of the so-called “erotic” books out there. But my actual physical book collection contains a number of beautiful “coffee table” books. I particularly enjoy looking at books on house decoration, landscaping and gardens, beautiful handwork and embroidery, and cookbooks.

  9. Reading is a tool for me in many situations; learning, enjoyment, escape etc. However I think that no matter why I pick up a book, I end up feeling connected. I see myself or experience a new perspective or find a friend or understand a scientific concept better etc. and it is emotionally similar to having a conversation over coffee for me. Of course reading is not a substitute for human interaction or dialogue, but it is also the opposite of isolating even though it is generally a solo activity.

  10. What a beautiful post this was, and all the comments were very uplifting as well, also fun-someone said something about the people thumping the Bible have never read it! I almost didn’t get this post because something seems to have gone wrong with my connection to you, Grace and I will have to fix it. I would have hated to miss this one. I have already read Lord Julian and am still thinking about him. I read for escape, for connection to other souls in an isolating world, for hope, for enlightening ideas, to lift my imagination out of the mundane. Even though none of us have ever met, we are all connected to each other in Grace World, and that’s a lovely thought.

  11. Great question! I read for so many reasons: to immerse myself in a story (the setting can be infinitely varied), to find joy and optimism, to see the grimness of some situations and feel passion about the causes, to be part of a family, to laugh, to relate, to see the world in a completely different way, to enjoy a writer’s skill with words, to learn about different times and places…

    Yesterday, for example, despite my best efforts my blood sugar was bouncing all over the place after being taken off a med because I had been “doing so well that I didn’t need it any more.” I was frustrated, shaky, and resentful that my hard work had led to this! I had just downloaded A Gentlemen Fallen on Hard Times, but I was determined to “save up” Lord Julian books because I wanted to indulge in several at a time, the way I had with the Lady Violet books.

    I was scanning the titles on my Kindle, saw the Lord Julian book, shook my head and kept scanning, returned to the Lord Julian book…and then dove in. It was such a tonic! I ended reading for hours, loving Lord Julian, his tone, and your writing, Grace. I felt so much better.

    I agree completely with the people who commented about not being willing to read a poorly written book! I cannot abide bad or lazy writing, or stereotyped situations and characters.

    I love series – being able to go back to a familiar world – especially yours, with all the familial and friendship connections and interconnected characters.

    Thank you so much for your writing! And in the future, maybe you could save us from ourselves by releasing several books at a time! 😉

    Judy S.

    PS for anyone else who is unfamiliar with the word Jakata, here is the definition from Wikipedia: “The Jātaka (meaning “Birth Story”, “related to a birth”) are a voluminous body of literature native to India which mainly concern the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form.”

  12. Why do I read? I’ve always been a voracious reader. Growing up in NYC, there was no library in walking distance to my house for my first few years as a reader, so we had a “Bookmobile” that came around every 2 weeks. As a child, I was only allowed to check out 2 books at a time, and they simply did not keep me occupied for two weeks. I remember the day when I graduated to an adult library card and I was suddenly able to check out as many books as I liked! Oh happy day! I remember starting from the top left corner of the “kids’” book shelf and reading all the books to the bottom right corner. By that time a brick and mortar library had been built a quarter mile or so from my house, and I was finally old enough to walk there on my own. Life got significantly better for me after that. I have always had the ability to completely lose myself in a well written story, but, as others have said, I have no patience for trite, repetitive, poorly written prose. That, and grammatical errors can make me set a book aside faster even than a predictable story. But when a book is well written, oh the rapture! I savor a beautifully written sentence, sometimes reading and rereading it again and again. The ability to inhabit a different time in history or a new geographical location is such a joy. Left to my own devices, I would spend all day and much of the night reading, but, like sweets, I have to limit my indulgence. But the joy at the end of a busy day, when I can put my feet up in a comfortable chair and delve into the latest romance is indescribable. Thank you Grace, for your many contributions to my library! Stay safe. Stay well everyone!

  13. Just got the email about all of the upcoming books – you have been so busy! Congratulations-I adore Sir Julian and Hecate…

  14. I read for many reasons: to learn, to relax, to visit other places (even other planets), to time travel, to be entertained, to be able to relate to other people’s experiences, and even occasionally to avoid talking to people when on public transportation or while waiting in doctor’s offices. 🙂

  15. Wonderful comments on this great post! I have loved reading since I could pick up a book. My mother read to me often and was good at it. I was lucky to have an aunt who was a NYC Public Library librarian who gave me many children’s classics which now belong to my grandchildren. I still re-read The Secret Garden in the Spring every few years…
    I read to experience knowing and being other people and living other lives. I learn a great deal about what makes other people tick from well written fiction which I find has helped me to be a better person and a better and more useful friend.
    I definitely read to escape! I particularly love books that make me laugh out loud which is all too rare. I also love those that make me cry although that can be pretty exhausting.
    The first Lord Julian book made me rather angry, not at him, but at so many of the other characters! I am trusting that his reputation will be steadily improving as the series progresses. I find I can get wild with indignation about characters who are the kind of people I would hastily avoid in real life. Lots of eye-rolling while reading goes on…
    Reading Miss Dashing at nearly the same time also had me gnashing my teeth. After those two books, I really want to stay away from house parties!
    Thank you, Grace, for introducing me to so many wonderful families and fascinating characters through recent years. I don’t remember now how I discovered you, but that was a very happy day!

  16. Why do I read? For the simple joy of traveling, learning new and interesting information, and relaxing. As a former educator, my heart is sad when I hear anyone say “I hate to read” especially young people. I just signed up for your newsletter and the news feed articles give so many interesting insights for meditation and discussion. If I read correctly you live in Maryland and a secret wish is to have dinner with you and Nora Roberts! What a dream.

    COVID hit us powerfully and my reading choices needed a diversion from bios, current events, crime stories, etc. History has always been a love so why not try a little love fiction? As I browsed my library offerings I encountered names like Balogh and Quinn, which offered me many hours of relaxation and a love of Victorian history (one of my former lives!!!) Then the name Grace Burrows came up. My 1st choice “The Windham Family series” was so enjoyable, filled with family, young women’s journies, younger siblings’ antics, and many belly laughs that hooked me and gave me an escape from the boredom of COVID. I cannot get enough of your writing.

    Now that I found your newsletter and this great section of news feeds. I love to share my opinion when asked and when I read these essays my thoughts for discussion just pour out. Keep up this section, I love it just as I love your books. And come to dinner anytime you visit Towson, MD.

    Hopefully, I will read to my dying day and my one wish for the world is “if everyone would pick up something to read and learn.”