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11. Why Read? – “I wish I watched more TV”

Reading is not an important activity. Books can be important but reading is not. In conversation, the magic words ‘I really should read more’ appear with metronomic regularity. Yet I never fail to find this statement irksome. I usually respond by asking a question.


The answer is invariably nebulous and along the lines that reading is good for you. Reading, it appears, has become the entertainment equivalent of cod liver oil. Fantastic.

I blame us for this. I blame committed readers. We had to go and make reading so bloody special. If one were to ask a person at a party why they watch films then they would say ‘Erm, I just like them’ before backing away from you in favour of the last sausage-on-a-stick. But, readers are so very proud of their achievement that they insist on aggrandising the process.

For example, this very site includes a tab titled ‘Why read?’ The majority of visitors to are already keen readers and need no further convincing. All one gains is the chance to indulge in some pleasant self-gratification. For the remaining minority who came to this site by accident and want the same feeling, there are better places on the internet for it.

We have bought into the idea of reading instead of the enjoyment of books. Like any form of entertainment, the value of reading should be purely derived from the content of the material. The subject matter in a computer game, film, or conversation is of equal merit to that of a book if it offers the same insight.

So why do books demand reverence? If a friend joins you in the pub with an air of satisfaction and declares that he had watched Apocalypse Now for the third time or had played and beaten Far Cry 2, the response would be one of disdain. The friend would be called a geek or a layabout. If the friend announced his completion of Heart of Darkness then he could expect approval. The irony is that all three titles derive from The Divine Comedy.

The difference with books is the level of investment demanded in order to extract what the author intended. Books take time and active engagement on the part of the reader. If you do this you will reap the full reward. This fact is a blessing and a problem for reading. Books are ultimately the most satisfying experience because the lessons are partially self-taught and thus we take ownership of the conclusions. Conversely, because we have made this effort, we expect a pat on the back afterwards. This is why we distort the process of reading into an act of self-improvement. The inflated ideal of reading sucks all the fun out of a book, turning it into unwanted homework or the dreaded cod liver oil. For the retrospective pride of a task completed we turn reading into an achievement and a chore.

If you want to share your passion for books with those around you, than stop asking yourself why you read. Instead, recommend a book. And if that fails, just tell them it’s smutty.

James Ross

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