Why Read?: An Impassioned and Somewhat Confused Argument

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.


  1. I open a book and dare the author to ravage me with exquisite sentences and characters. I want to be able to 'get' the story and travel along with the author's scenes and thoughts and words. I want to start reading and suddenly realize that half the afternoon has passed because I have been so engrossed. And then there is always that slight irritation at having to put the book down so as to get on with my actual life, looking forward to getting one more chapter in when I go to bed, before I turn out the light.

    Plus, a book is portable! And yes, the conversation value!

    I remember summer afternoons as a teen lying in my backyard hammock reading book after book after book. It felt safe and exciting at the same time. I may be grown up now with a family of my own but my love of reading hasn't changed.

    Movies, tv, and internet just aren't the same.

  2. Great post! I've tried myself to figure out how to persuade people to read and I usually just end up stuttering something like "Because you should! I don't even understand the hesitation" which of course doesn't actually help explain to someone why they should pick up a book.

    Movies and TV can show us different worlds and points of view but it's much more passive than reading. I love that with reading I can fill in the details, I am actively engaged with the story. I once had a teacher explain this is why so many people think a book is better than the movie: you already made the decisions about how things should look and feel. If a movie doesn't do what you thought you usually think you're version was better.

    I think your topic shouldn't be "why read" but "Why read fiction?" That seems to be the main point of the argument. It could be argued that being online forces people to read and write more than ever before, though of course this is a much different experience than reading a book.

  3. Great minds.... Just posted last week about the importance of reading fiction - or why we SHOULD read fiction, because, as you say, it opens our eyes to different worldviews.

    TV/movies/the Intrawebs all certainly have a place in the well-roundedness - after all, you CAN learn a ton from those mediums as well. But all things in moderation. Hell, even Jersey Shore can be useful if you're watching it only as an hour-long break from four hours of reading. It's changes your "eye line." You need the bad to appreciate the good, right!?

  4. I know why people don't understand reading, and how great it is.

    They have no imagination.

    They never learned to let their minds run wild with just a few words. Books have always been scary than movies, because my mind can do more than anything on the screen. Reading is fantastic.

    Of course, my parents encouraged me in reading since I was very little. When other kids were struggling with Doctor Doolittle, I was already reading Heinlein.

    Granted, there are some people that can't understand reading because they can't focus long enough to do so. My roommate has ADHD, and he has problems staying with a book. He and audiobooks get along great though.

    Raven Corinn Carluk

  5. Trish - I totally agree! I just don't know how to explain that to people who don't already agree :-)

    Red - Me too! My arguments just turn into protests that I can't see how you wouldn't see it my way. I do agree that I descended into why read fiction, but I also believe that there is a strange bias against reading non-fiction, as some suggest that the same information can be found online, on the news and in documentaries... I still say reading it is a different experience, but can't put my finger on why.

    Greg - I did see your post last week - maybe you got my gears turning unconsciously! And I'll admit to watching Jersey Shore. Definitely good to change one's perspective from time to time.

    Raven - My little sister suffers from ADHD too, but has actually just "discovered" reading (she's now a freshman in high school). She reads in long stretches, usually with the television or music on as well - somehow that makes it easier for her to focus on the page, although it would make me crazy to read and watch TV at the same time!

  6. My dad was a teacher. Money was always hard to find when I was growing up. He did and made everything for our family that he could. If he didn't know how to do something or fix something, he'd go to the library and check out a book and learn how. If nothing else, books are a resource that you don't have if you can't or won't read.

  7. Calandreya - Yes, definitely a resource lost to the non-readers. But how many people turn to the internet and the numerous articles available there for this kind of information now?

  8. "Books as social currency" - that is so true. There are many people in my life with whom I had little in common but needed to develop a relationship with (my SIL comes to mind) and books were the way in which I forged a connection with them. Talking about books provides an entry point and fosters rich discussion.

  9. Definitely! Even if you disagree about the book, at least it's a subject you have in common enough to discuss.

  10. Great post! I'm always thrown off by the "why read?" question too. You answered it well :)


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