As any parent will know, ‘Why?’ is the central question of early childhood. Why’s the sky blue? Why’s water wet? Daddy, why aren’t you rich?
But as the father of an infant son, it strikes me that ‘Why Read?’ is a question we only learn to ask as we get older – and, I’d suggest, more cynical.
For my two-year-old, reading is still exactly what it should be: unbridled joy. He doesn’t read because he thinks he should, but because books, any books, take him somewhere new, a place more colourful, more magical. They allow him to explore not just the world around him, but also the manifold universes that exist in his own hungry imagination. His love of books is uncomplicated, unconditional.
As we get older, we can all too easily lose sight of this. At school and university, where I studied English Literature, my relationship with books became rather more, well, platonic. More often than not, I picked up a book because I had to, because it might earn me a higher mark, because it would make me brighter, ‘better read’. I learned an awful lot about books, their authors, narratives, subtexts and structures, but very little about how to enjoy them.
Not that I entirely fell out of love with reading. Some of the titles on my curriculum – Dickens’s Bleak House springs to mind – caused me untold agony. I got indigestion every time I picked them up. Others, however, such as Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, changed my life. I read that book in one go, in a tent, in a storm, and sobbed hysterically when it ended. I remember having to get blind drunk on cheap French plonk just to get over it – and I’m not really the sentimental sort.
But by the time I left university, my attitude to reading had changed. And not really for the better. Books had become less of a joy than a duty, a means to become, shudder, ‘a better person’. As a reader, I had become a hopeless self-improver.
Part of the problem is that the books we read, like the clothes we wear, appear to say an awful lot about us. Consequently, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying the books we think we might look good reading. Ulysses is a good example – most have it; few have finished it.
I certainly first picked up Ulysses not really because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I wanted to be one of that select bunch that genuinely gets to the end of it. Perhaps predictably, I failed. Several times. Partly out of desperation, I even tried starting it from the back – only to discover, in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, one of the most beautiful and poetic pieces of prose I have ever read (not that it made the preceding 1,000 pages any easier).
And so I stopped reading because I ‘should’, and started reading for that most rewarding, and blissfully childlike, of reasons: fun.
In fact, it was Bernard Cornwell who made me fall back in love with books. I picked up Azincourt first, and then consumed rapidly more or less everything else. Now I’ve moved onto George RR Martin, whose A Game of Thrones has recently become a huge TV hit.
Neither appeared on my university curriculum, and neither, I suppose, make me look terribly alluring when I’m spotted reading them on the bus to work. I suppose you could dismiss them as mass market. Popcorn reading.
But who cares? I don’t have to ask why I read these books, the smile on my face is reason enough.
Besides, my son is in love with The Very Hungry Caterpillar – and if pure, unpretentious enthusiasm is anything to go by, he’s the best critic of all.
Matt Warren is Editor of The Lady (www.lady.co.uk)