open book against blue sky with white clouds

Why Do I Read?

I’ve been thinking about reading lately. In the abstract, that is. It was a topic discussed in the most recent video chat at Writers Supporting Writers, just about the time I posted my TBR list for summer reading. And now I’ve joined another Goodreads Reading Round. So one way or another, I’m immersed in reading.

But why do I read at all?

I decided to ask myself the question at its most fundamental. Why do I read anything? Not fiction versus nonfiction, not a specific genre or a specific book. What is the impulse that makes me seek out text, words rendered into alphabetic characters on paper or screen?

Because I need to give my brain something to do, or something to engage with other than present reality.

This would be when whatever situation I’m in isn’t interesting enough, or when I want to get away from whatever is happening around me or in my head. It’s my way of disengaging from reality and placing my attention elsewhere.

Specifically, these are the situations in which my brain says, “I need something to read.”

  • Waiting. At the dentist’s, at the airport or on the airplane, in a lineup. Etc. Any situation I can’t escape, but in which there isn’t anything to engage my attention.
  • Eating. Yes, dinner table conversation is a good thing, but sometimes there’s nothing to say, or there isn’t anyone around but the dog. Dogs are not good conversationalists.
  • Detaching. From the day, the situation, the people around me. I always read for at least a few minutes before going to sleep. It’s the perfect way to transition from daily frets and thoughts to the relaxed state conducive to sleep.
  • Enhancing. Reading perfects a state of passive enjoyment, such a at the beach or a picnic, where one is in pleasant surroundings with nothing to do. Give the brain a book and let the body soak up the sun, birdsong, breeze, etc.

Reading is such a simple action. You pick up the text-bearing object (sheets of paper bound together or a hand-held electronic device), open it or turn it on, and focus your eyes. Okay, some may need to put on glasses first. That’s it. You start reading where you left off and keep reading at whatever speed you like.

And–best of all, in my opinion–you can stop at any point without losing the thread, knowing you can return to the text whenever you like.

Now I’m wondering when the human brain developed this hunger for text. We know we told stories long before the emergence of written language. Reading became a universal human experience only in the past couple of centuries, so the brain’s need for text (as distinct from story) must be similarly recent.

Storytelling is a social activity, but reading silently to oneself is private. Some scholars think silent reading was the beginning of an interior life. I think this is unlikely; surely people in pre-literate societies had private thoughts, imaginings, and flights of fancy? But it does seem that once reading is a choice, for some of us it becomes a need.

While silent reading is a solitary activity, it is nevertheless a form of communication. Text is indirect communication without the immediacy of face-to-face speech, but it preserves ideas, images, and sounds. It carries them across time and space. It transcends mortality.

pocket watch and book

In conclusion: I read to give my brain something to do, and to be transported virtually to a different environment where I can vicariously experience things I probably never will in real life.

As a reader, I’m happy that there are so many writers creating stuff to read, so I don’t have to resort to whatever happens to be available nearby (cereal box, instruction manual, nutritional info, last week’s newspaper). But what does this mean to me as a writer?

To be continued in Why Do I Write?

61 comments

  1. When we recall the excitement of learning to read and being able to read a book on our own, it makes sense that this is a need. I believe it is an inherent need that modern-day humans are born with. Not everyone reads books, but everyone reads something. If I don’t read (fiction) at some time during the day, I don’t feel the day is complete. I liked your Take on why you read. I would add, that I read to learn something. (not just facts but also about people and their emotions and reactions) A great topic!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. When I was very little, my life’s ambition was to learn how to read. It was so wonderful and miraculous I thought one had to be an adult to engage in it. When my parents set me straight in that regard, I was beside myself with excitement!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi. I’m halfway thru a novel by an author I’d never heard of before noticing her book on a library shelf a week ago. Abigail Thomas. The novel is titled An Actual Life. It’s got a homespun, very realistic quality to it.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. There’s a youtube vid that explores the difference in brain reactions between chimps and humans regarding flash-memorization. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktkjUjcZid0

    The theory is that humans traded language for this instant pattern memorization.

    Here’s a question, when you dream, do you ever dream you’re reading? I suspect not. But you do dream in language, conceptual blocks of logic and context we call words.

    Reading, I suspect, is just a handy way to load our minds with imagery and narrative. We are just as comfortable — many would say more so — consuming setting and story visually and aurally via video, or, gasp, through actual experience.

    But, yeah, I agree — an idle mind is the Devil’s slaughterhouse-5. So, give it something to do.

    Like

    1. Interesting video, at least the first few minutes that deliver the nub; may watch the rest later. That’s just it–I’d rather read about something like that than watch a 20+ minute video.
      About dreaming: I never dream about reading or writing, but I don’t dream in words either. The dreams I remember are like silent movies. If there are other people in them, I may know that they say things, but I don’t remember any words being spoken. But then, I find it hard to remember dreams; they mostly slip away minutes after I wake up.
      I think there’s a fundamental difference between reading and watching.
      Now I have to go and watch the rest of that video.

      Like

  4. Hi, Audrey. I think its partly that the mind craves connection. It wants to know what others think and feel about things and to digest it in private. In connecting with others through conversation, we’re expected to contribute, but reading takes us off line so to speak.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point, Michael. Reading gives us space to think about what is being communicated to us. Like me reading your comment and then replying to it 2 hours later. A slow-mo conversation, in this case.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, Liz. We can also connect with what people thought in the past, even if it’s only to realise we keep making the same mistakes. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I imagine our ancestors, if they had been told books were going to be invented, would have frowned ‘It won’t be the same as all sitting round the fire together listening properly to a story’. We once went away for the weekend and I realised with horror I had forgotten my reading glasses. As soon as I could I went into Boots the chemist and bought a pair off the rack.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’d list these reasons in no particular order:

    1. For entertainment.
    2. To learn new things.
    3. To become a better writer.
    4. To communicate and engage with others.
    5. To help me fall asleep at night.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Audrey, a wonderful post celebrating reading and of your list I wholeheartedly agree about enhancing and detaching aspects of reading! I could not imagine a world where I could not read and remember my hunger to start reading from a very young age. It was a magical world waiting to be unravelled and I still devour books with excitement and joy. They have given me so much to me over the years and like you, I am thankful there is a continuous stream of new superb books!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A great post, Audrey! The first lure was Dad’s expertise in Calligraphy, and I inherited his love of words at a young age. Separation (evacuation in WW11) and loneliness possibly spurred my reading need and I joined the library, aged seven. The love affair with books remains with me and I regard reading and writing as miraculous in what they give to the afflicted. Cheers! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A very deep, thoughtful post Audrey which covers a wide scope of the more constructive aspects of Human Nature.
    Your assertion that although reading seems to be a solitary activity does actually have a social link across ‘the ether’ does strike a chord with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your list of reasons resonated, Audrey. I think I also read to learn, not only as an author with her trusty highlighter but as a human experiencing another person’s human story. I also read to feel something (my favorite books are the ones that grip my emotions and are so fully engrossing that I can’t put them down). Great question and musing. I can’t imagine a life without books.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a fascinating topic! I don’t think text per se is what makes us read. I suspect it simply engages the imagination in way more visual things don’t, or can’t. For example, I play MMOs [online games] for relaxation and to ‘escape’ into another world. Because MMOs are both visual, auditory and interactive – as you’re digitally interacting with both the game and other gamers – you’d think they’d be much more immersive than reading, but they’re not. Well, they’re not for /me/. I enjoy playing them, and I do get very involved in them, but they don’t usually fire up my own imagination. By contrast, when I read, I fill in the gaps between the words. I take part in the creative process rather than simply being part of the ‘action’. Not sure if that makes sense, but that’s sharing of the creative process is why I’ll never stop reading. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re on to something here, Meeka. I don’t play games, but I do enjoy creating images (with Canva) by assembling visual elements and tweaking them. It’s an immersive activity and distracts me from whatever is going on, BUT when I sign out and leave I don’t keep thinking about it. An interesting book, on the other hand, stays with me between reading sessions and after I’ve finished reading it. I think it’s because, as you say, the reader participates to some extent in creating the story.
      Thanks for this comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great example, Audrey. I love my graphics too, but like you I don’t think about it afterwards whereas a good story haunts me for days or sometimes years.
        Thanks for kickstarting this discussion. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  12. This article really got me thinking. I connected with what you said about detatching from reality. Reading has always been an escape for me. But I think your brief comment about exploring new environments and experiences is a seed of something that has a lot more to consider. Exploration and discovery, whether fiction or nonfiction, are really what draw me in personally. Reading really is incredible. It is transcending as you said. Thank you for your words.

    Like

  13. I love to read and am very glad there’s no need for a “Bookaholic Anonymous” group because no one needs to stop! Also there’s no such thing a “buying too many books”. A shortage of available shelves sure… but never too many books!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! Whenever I see full book shelves I think “Wow, there’s so many people who care about and love something and share their love”. As long as there is love there will be books/things to read and I take comfort in that. Thank you for the fun conversation!

        Liked by 1 person

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