Why Read?

Image: Jaredd Craig/Unsplash

BOOK READERS must seem all the same to non-book readers. Just another hobby group, like soccer fans or bridge players. I experienced this prejudice firsthand a few years ago. A friend of mine and his girlfriend set me up with one of her friends. They didn’t tell me anything about her except that she was a runner and that “we both loved to read.” Our first and only date was at a bar called The Thirsty Scholar (we were both readers, after all). I don’t know which of us first realized that our friends had a made a mistake. The books she loved—Victorian novels, Romantic poetry, children’s fantasy—I wouldn’t read unless I was getting paid for it. The books I loved—histories, essay collections, Southern Gothics—she wouldn’t pick up off the street. The gulf between us was as wide as the gulf between reader and nonreader. But our nonreading friends had no idea. To them we were both the same. (Not that we stood a chance anyway. I hate running.)

A Pew survey published last fall showed that 27 percent of US adults hadn’t read a book in the past year. Remarkably, many noted, that meant 73 percent had. I couldn’t, however, have been the only one who found the survey’s threshold for what qualifies a person as a “book reader” to be comically low. One book. Was it Remembrance of Things Past? Nor did the survey require a specific kind of book; the books these adults read might’ve been children’s books they read aloud to their little ones. The survey also counted audiobooks as reading. In that case, why not count anyone who listens to narrative podcasts?

Surveys like this come out seemingly every year and always show the same thing. Americans don’t read books much, and those who do are predominantly white, urban, educated, introverted, and female. They also show that most Americans say they know they should read more books and that they plan on doing so in the future.

Why don’t most of these Americans read now? The surveys rarely ask. The answers are likely legion, but most probably don’t read simply because they aren’t good at it. Reading test scores have been stagnant for thirty years, with only a third of test-takers scoring as proficient. Despite our schools’ obsession with “reading comprehension”—being able to draw inferences, compare and contrast things, identify arguments—we aren’t getting any better at comprehending what we read. That’s because obsession over reading comprehension is a lot like a basketball player only practicing free throws. It’s great. She should practice free throws. But it isn’t basketball. And free throws in a game are a whole lot different than free throws in an empty gym.

Most Americans also don’t have much leisure time and work long hours at jobs that exhaust them either from fatigue or boredom. Nor do we have much of a reading culture. If I meet someone at a party, I’m more likely to talk about sports or movies rather than the latest biography of Abraham Lincoln. There’s also a social stigma around reading. Certain nonreaders take almost as much pride in not reading as readers do in reading; certain men regard it as at best a waste of time, at worst effeminate.

What I find more interesting than our almost universal lack of book-reading, however, is our almost universal acceptance that book-reading is a good thing. The pollsters don’t usually ask the why on that either. So why is reading such a superior use of one’s time? Professional readers (i.e., writers) give different answers, most of which can be divided into two camps: the act of reading is good in itself and the content of what can be found in some books is better for your character than what can be found elsewhere.

David Foster Wallace famously said that “the point of books was to combat loneliness.” Oddly enough, Niccolò Machiavelli said something similar. After a long day of field work, he would settle down to read the classics of Greece and Rome. “There,” he wrote, “I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me.” But it isn’t just that these books made him feel less alone—it’s that they put him in communion with greatness.

This ability to commune with greatness through books is especially important for the powerless. Black Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison wrote of reading the classics while growing up in the Jim Crow South. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” wrote Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, “Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas.” In Alabama, Ellison read Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Gertrude Stein—“composers, novelists and poets who spoke to me of more interesting and freer ways of life.”

But Wallace’s point about books—that they cure loneliness by surrounding the solitary reader with imaginary companions—doesn’t just apply to books. That sort of thing can be found elsewhere: on TV or social media. So why is reading a book better than watching Big Bang Theory or scrolling through Facebook? We’re back to the fundamental dilemma: Is reading a good in itself or does it depend on what you’re reading?

The late literary critic Harold Bloom is one who decidedly fell into the content camp. The act of reading, according to him, was not inherently better than most other hobbies; it’s what you read that matters. If you’re not reading things that don’t “enrich mind or spirit or personality” (his words), then you might as well be watching NASCAR. In 2000, when asked in an interview if he was encouraged by the explosion of reading brought about by J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series, Bloom said that those people weren’t really reading, “Their eyes are passing over a page. They are turning the page. Their minds are being numbed by cliché. No demands are being made upon them. Nothing…nothing is happening to them.” Reading, for Bloom, wasn’t just an act. It required an inward process—a self-interrogation. A book had to pull something out of us, had to “help us to encounter ourselves, accept ourselves, or realize that we are not acceptable by ourselves.” Otherwise it wasn’t the authentic stuff. And reading it wasn’t reading at all.

There are, of course, opportunities for self-enrichment that exist outside of reading books. I can personally say that watching The Office probably did more for my mind, spirit, and personality than any time I’ve tried reading a Jonathan Franzen novel. And sports have taught me more about life than John Updike. Yet presumably Bloom would say reading provides something these other self-enriching opportunities don’t. In other words, there is something unique to the act of reading that these other things lack. The act of reading, then, is necessary but not sufficient. Bloom himself proved that self-interrogation through the reading of prestigious books (his “Western Canon”) wasn’t the be-all-end-all; he proved it by being the way he was: naively provincial, naively smug, naively moralistic—a lifetime served as the Holy Curmudgeon of the Highbrow.

What is the other camp’s argument? The reading for reading’s sake-ers? That reading books is a good in itself because it’s a way of taking control of your life, of asserting agency in a world of distractions. The ubiquity of screens and sounds has, as political commentator Richard Seymour put it, “obliterat[ed] the ‘mute spot’ in our being.” There are fewer and fewer opportunities for self-interrogation. All of our time is now taken up with videos, music, podcasts, games, and social media. What’s going on is a commercial competition for our attention. A competition over who controls us—who gets to obliterate that “mute spot,” who gets to profit off our shrinking sense of self. Reading books is a form of insurrection against all those above us engaged in that competition.

We’re back to the fundamental dilemma: Is reading a good in itself or does it depend on what you’re reading?

“It’s the sheer relief from the chaos in the head that reading delivers,” writes Vivian Gornick, a reading for reading’s sake-er, in her new book, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader. But this is a personal testament rather than universal fact. For nonreaders, one of the reasons they avoid reading is that the “mute spot,” the silence it requires, brings on mental chaos. It’s a reason why the worst (official) punishment in US prisons is solitary confinement. Being alone with oneself is literally torture. We are social creatures, evolved for community. The broken screams of fellow prisoners are heartbreaking, but they are also a kind of reassurance. (As William Faulkner said, between grief and nothing most people will take grief.) Reading is a confrontation with our mental chaos, not a relief from it. It isn’t meditation; we still have something to hold our attention. To hold onto. But it is a way of tiptoeing around that ambient void at the center of our existence. It isn’t an escape from chaos but a method of being at peace within it.

This is all a way of saying that both camps are right (or, if you prefer, both are wrong). The act of reading is in itself better than most alternatives. You might watch a TV show that, content-wise, is more likely to improve your character than, say, a murder novel you’re going to read once and never think about again. But there’s also a good chance you’re likely to watch that show distracted. Not that people don’t get distracted reading. Who hasn’t turned a page or two and realized they don’t remember a word from them? But at least with books it’s easy to go back and try again. How many people are so invested in a TV show that they rewind through the parts they missed when they were looking at their phone? Plus, no matter how self-enriching a show or movie is, it still doesn’t have what a book has: silence, being alone without feeling alone, a state of feeling settled into something rather than a transient feeling of watching something pass by.

A wise person once said, “It doesn’t matter what you think but how you think.” And that sentiment has been instilled throughout our culture. It’s true. Or partly true. How you think is more important than what you think. And the same is true of reading. How you read is more important than what you read. Someone who reads Harry Potter with a pen in hand, underlining passages, writing notes in the margin, highlighting moments of delight and moments of failure, taking inspiration from those who do good and warning from those who do bad, is reading the right way—the better way—than the person reading Ulysses, their hands empty, their eyes passively moving over pages, bored to death, no interrogation of self or the book, just wanting to get to the end so they can say they’ve read it. As a seventeenth-century Jesuit said, “Reading is useless, vain, and silly when no writing is involved.”

Still, some books are better than others. And by that I mean some demand more critical engagement if they are to be processed at all, which speaks to Bloom’s point: books that make no demands on us aren’t doing us much good if those are the only books we’re reading or if we’re not imposing demands on ourselves while reading them. In The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes, a collection of C.S. Lewis quotes on reading, there’s a long passage by Lewis on how readers “seek an enlargement of our being” through books. “We want,” he continues, “to be more than ourselves”:

Those of us who have been true readers [emphasis added] all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

Lewis is right. Reading is an enlargement of the self. Although it isn’t necessarily an improvement of the self. Reading alone won’t make you a better person. Francis Prose, in her collection of essays What to Read and Why, writes about the “humanizing” effect that literature has on its readers. But if that were true, as Terry Eagleton has morbidly pointed out, then how do we explain the Nazi death camp supervisors who retired every evening to read Johann von Goethe? It’s because reading doesn’t make you a better person. It makes you a better version of yourself. It upgrades the car we’re in rather than changes the direction of our trip. Which is why we should approach books with caution. They are dangerous things. There are monsters in them, and they are us.

Neither is the act of reading a sign of intelligence. “Here instead of Man Thinking,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “we have the bookworm.” Most readers aren’t smarter than the average nonreader. Even worse, most readers don’t even seem smarter. That’s because most of them read the way Bloom dismissed. Neither they nor the book are making any demands. They read passively—either with the pleasure of their minds being numbed or with the pleasure that, by reading, they are inherently superior to the nonreader. Called upon though for insight or instruction, they can provide neither. They would’ve been better off playing bridge. If readers want more people to read books, we must become better ambassadors for reading. And we can do that by being virtuous and by relating that virtuousness to our habit of reading.

Not every book you read needs to be a great or serious book. As W.H. Auden wrote, when one thinks of the attention such a book typically demands, “there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one.” But if you wouldn’t read a book twice, you probably shouldn’t read it once.

True reading cultivates a critical mind. And a critical mind doesn’t shut off after the book is closed. It goes with you everywhere. When someone asks me what to read, I always answer “everything.” History, science fiction, fantasy, mythology, canon books, detective stories, criticism, psychology—Shakespeare and more Shakespeare. Alongside reading loveable books, read those who love to read. The Reading Life mentioned before, Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read (foreword by Ali Smith), and Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1997-2019 by James Wood are all excellent, recently published books on books. I’d also recommend Harold C. Goddard’s two-volume The Meaning of Shakespeare, C.L.R. James’s Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, and the essay collections of Clive James, Martin Amis, Kenneth Rexroth, Elizabeth Hardwick, Rebecca West, Christopher Hitchens, Alfred Kazin, and Edmund Wilson. These might not be the best book critics, but they all know what the stakes are.

Most importantly, do as Lewis said: constantly be extending yourself and constantly be filling that extended self with new stories, new facts, new perspectives. Reading isn’t the only ingredient to a fulfilling life, but it is a crucial and necessary one. We’ll be on our way when people stop asking, “Are you reading that for school or for pleasure?” because they themselves know there’s much more to it than that.