During the seemingly endless decade when I was a homeschooling mom, I secretly had only one basic goal: to convince my girls to love books. So why is it we readers read? And why push reading with a passion?
Clearly prejudiced, I had to give a nod to mathematics as a boring-but-necessary blot on the curriculum :). I’d score sciences from 0 to 10 depending on their relative story potential—quantum physics, astronomy, and genetics all rated high. Entomology, maybe not so much. History and social studies also ranged from the low-interest memorization of “the imports and exports of Nicaragua” (said Madeleine L’Engle via Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time) to the high dramatic impact of, say, the Crusades or World War II.
And in the language department… Grammar is fit for grammarians and editors, composition for writers. But literature—that’s a synonym for life. Launching into the depths of a library ought to be a highlight of our education as well as one of the principal joys of adulthood.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” ― Dr. Seuss, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!
We readers read to learn.
I debated whether to list this reason first or last, as it might sound academic (yawn), but on the bottom line, reading forms the foundation of much of our learning. And learning paves the road to the rest of our lives.
What do you want to know? Whatever you and I need to learn, we can read to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. We can gain the power only words can provide, wield weapons of incredible potential, and acquire tools for any job or skill imaginable.
For those who are writers as well as readers, books fill our pens with smoothly-flowing ink. Well-known Maine writer, Stephen King, said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” You just don’t possess the background in the subject.
Reading is in many ways better than a university degree, better than a trip around the world, better than an elite internship. Readers read to satisfy their curiosity about the universe. They study to sparkle in their field. They read to lead.
And I don’t mean just nonfiction, by any stretch.
“A peasant that reads is a prince in waiting.” ― Walter Mosley, The Long Fall
We readers read to enjoy.
Certainly we discover more than facts. A few weeks ago, I shared my take on the dubious merits of what cynics call the real world. Let me say a word here about the frequent charge of fiction escapism: I believe in full participation in life.
But I also recognize it’s sometimes a sad and weary world out there. Hence, the therapeutic value—the simple pleasure—of a book. It offers the kind of entertainment that touches our sweet spot, heightens joy, and renews the soul.
What would you like to experience beyond your ordinary world? Something fun and exciting, of course.
You want to see magic? You want to journey to the stars? Fall in love, find your dreams? Dare the impossible, win the battle, discover the ultimate adventure?
“The world was hers for the reading,” wrote Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). And so it is ours too.
Reading is a time machine, where you can travel back a thousand years or a thousand years into the future. It’s a magic carpet that will carry you a thousand miles from here and now, to a kaleidoscope of experiences, positive and negative. And it’s a refuge—a shock absorber—from the worst of life’s knocks.
We readers read to feel.
Plenty of times, I’m so glad a book’s plot problem isn’t happening to me. On the other hand, maybe I wish it were. But the main question I’m always asking myself is, How would you handle the situation?
When we identify with a great protagonist, we experience the same gamut of emotions. This sort of catharsis gives us a way to face feelings that may be hard to acknowledge in other contexts.
We also have the chance to take part in her decision-making processes, which helps us to cope with our own lives better. And just as important, reading can motivate and inspire us to great things if our emotions are touched in a significant way.
C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, said that his goals as a writer for his readers were: “Make them laugh, make them cry, and make them wait.” Talk about an emotional roller coaster!
We may dread that pit-of-the-stomach tickle in real life, but in stories…we readers love it.
In Swan Island Secrets, Coni Belmar’s re-encounter with Lewis’s Narnia series affects her so profoundly that she longs to communicate this game-changing impact—not of knowledge, but emotions—with her fourth-grade students. So we come to…
We readers read to understand.
It’s just a story, right? But so often, more of truth is wrapped up in fiction than in the ruse that passes for reality. We read to find ourselves in the lives of others and to realize that others out there, real or imaginary, might think the same way we do.
Why do people do this or that? More importantly, why do you or I do what we do? Readers read to connect emotionally and intellectually with themselves and others. We gain discernment, clarity, and perception.
Every book is a field guide to the human species, a glimpse into the interior of our own hearts.
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”
― Lloyd Alexander, author of The Chronicles of Prydain
It strikes me just now that most of the quotes I’ve cited here today come from ‘supposedly’ juvenile literature or authors who wrote primarily for children. There’s a lesson in true reading comprehension here: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally—and often far more—worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond” (C.S. Lewis).
Like the Bible, the best books have a childlike simplicity that is easily understood yet endures and intensifies with each passing year and each fresh read.
We readers read to live.
The truth is, I can’t not read. It’s the air I breath, the food I eat. The books I’ve read, including the Bible, have filled, nourish, and sustained me—and made me the person I am.
How can you change and grow? Readers read, of course. Outside of exterior input, we have little possibility of soul nurture or transformation. We read not only to transcend and fly away but also to root ourselves in the most enriching of soils.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.” ― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
Call reading a lifestyle choice, if you will. Because…what happens in a culture that can read but doesn’t? The inimitable Mark Twain, also an author of many books for youth, said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”
This is to be alliterate, although not illiterate. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them,” said sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury.
Reasons We Don’t Read
The disease of alliteracy can affect any country, but in Chile it’s in danger of reaching epidemic proportions. You remember what they say about cultures that don’t learn from their past being doomed to repeat it. How can anyone expect to outgrow—conquer—the ruts they’re trapped in without exposure to original ideas?
This problem is further compounded in a society where books are priced to represent a major investment, thus considered a commodity accessible only to the privileged. The average person holds reading of little value.
Add to that a generation that prefers screens of all kinds to the pages of a book. The workout of reading means more effort than most are willing to put out.
If there were many good books available (which is another whole topic)…
“I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.” ― Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda
The reasons we read—or should read—are worth proclaiming. So I’m going to keep insisting and persisting. It’s no secret: Readers read, for the love of books and a strong mind.