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?