I never thought I'd see the day when I actually had to answer the "Why read?" question. To be quite honest, I thought it was self-explanatory and universally accepting. Reading is good. For you, for those around you, for societies, for politicians, for thinkers, for writers, for students, for entertainment. But it seems that that assumption pre-supposes an innate love of reading that (sadly) does not exist in everyone, which has lead me down the path of trying to set forth a clear argument for why reading is essential and enjoyable.
I'll say this, too: this proved more difficult than expected, if for no other reason that I have tried to assume I am arguing to someone who does not already have an appreciation for books - of any sort.
Reading is fundamental. We are taught to read as children not merely because it has become a near-necessary skill to surviving in today's sign-driven, advertising-laden, directional world (though this does seem to be one of the main factors driving literacy campaigns around the world), but because reading opens up a previously unseen world to us. Reading opens our eyes to new worlds, new worldviews, new perspectives, places, people, ideas, and things - while simultaneously reinforcing our own views, perspectives, and experiences. A novel, as much as a travel memoir or biography, can teach us, tell us we're not alone in our thoughts, guide us, shape our growth and our development - all in the pages of one book, fiction or non.
What is more, reading gives us a kind of social currency.
"Have you read the third Stieg Larsson book?"
"No, just finished the first."
"Oh, I can't wait to hear your thoughts on #2 and #3 - I liked #2 best."
"If you liked that trilogy, you'll probably like..."
What is more satisfying to a certified bookworm than to trade book recommendations, expanding lists of books you want to read while spreading the word about a gem you've recently uncovered?
But there I go, slipping into talking to those already persuaded again.
Slowly, as television and computers have come to dominate the average American's "entertainment" time, we have forgotten to appreciate the knowledge held in books, thinking that that same knowledge can be gleaned from television, movies, and the internet.
Which, to an extent, is true. If you are looking for non-fiction knowledge, The History Channel, Discovery, CNN and a plethora of other stations provide just the clipped documentaries we're after (and I love them as much as the next documentary junkie). If you are looking for escape through some captivating plot line, sitcoms and dramas are on offer a-plenty. If you want a taste of "life" in another's shoes... well, there's "reality" TV for you. And this doesn't even begin to touch on the millions of articles, stories, videos, pictures and social media updates on the great wide interwebs.
The question, then, becomes not "Why read?" but "Why read instead of watching television/watching movies/going online?"
And there, I'm stumped. I'm not sure I have the answer, and I'm sad to say I'm not sure we can convince the non-reading public to join us in our reading crusade. Reading has to be enjoyed on an individual level, not because someone told you it is enjoyable. You can shove books into children's hands and demand that they read them, test them on their contents, but until we can find a way to prove that it reading is enjoyable, enriching, and all those wonderful deluxe adjectives we associate with our precious tomes, it is nothing more than work.
And that, I believe, leads us back to that bookworm's love of recommendation: because we think, rightly so in most cases, that if we can just find the right book, the right story, the right memoir, novel, polemic, biography, history, whatever - we might be able to shed some light on our impassioned love for reading. Maybe we'll even have a convert on our hands.