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7. Why Read?

There is an admirable online publication, Letters of Note, which collects fine examples of written communication between interesting figures, many well known, others less so.

One letter published on the site in particular delighted me. It is from an impressed reader to Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the literary bestseller Life of Pi.

The reader writes:

“Mr. Martel —

My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals.

It is a lovely book — an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.

Thank you.”

For me this elegant note, describing an elegant book, eloquently answers the question that Don’t Read Too Fast is examining in this series: why read? Books, whether their content is factual or imagined, can be immeasurably powerful things, capable of examining the most fundamental questions that men have yet had the capacity and wit to ask.

I believe our greatest asset in navigating the complex corridors of dealing with other humans is to have context. It is our only chance to achieve even an imperfect understanding of other people (and we must accept it will only ever be imperfect). We can amass this context by learning from our own experiences and contact with others, and it is our duty to do so. However, reading, I would argue more than any other intellectual activity that has yet been devised, enables us to exponentially grow our repository of context and understanding of the experiences of other people.

The address of Yann Martel’s correspondent? The White House, Washington. His name? Barack Obama.

Like him, I think we should give humble thanks to those that create or record stories that successfully help us to understand other people, and seek to answer some of the questions that have troubled and challenged our species for as long as we have existed.

Tristan Summerscale

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