Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Why read?’

27. Why Read?

I have what can only be referred to as Magical Realism Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which gives me the great pleasure of thrilling highs while I’m in the throes of a Louis de Bernieres, and a crushing, soul-destroying depression when I’m not.  I scour bookshops, and paw at the covers of books that promise a journey into the deepest jungles of South America, where I might learn how to cast spells from a 300-year-old Indian and where it’s totally normal to have a giant black jaguar as a pet.  The compulsion finds me boring through a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the detriment of my social life and personal relationships – you, my dear, can’t give me anything this book cannot.  It’s a deeply personal obsession.

I’ve thought a lot about why I dive so deeply into books, especially those of magical realism, and why when I think about getting lost in one, I think of a wardrobe, doors through which I escape into another world.  Perhaps the image of a wardrobe relates to a room in a house where a family reside, and it seems the most simple reason for my reading is to explore familial situations I’ve never had the joy of experiencing.  In books like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Shadows, I find great comfort in exploring the stories of storied families who have survived for generations on grit and honour.

As I build up in my head my desire for a family, and whether or not it is something I’ll ever really have, these books deliver me into the bosom of a mother who was never actually there, and impart on me words of wisdom from an overbearing father who doesn’t spend his time searching for his own answers at the bottom of the bottle.  In books like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, I raise a gaggle of children who tug at my shirt tails and climb onto my shoulders as I prepare dinner, and who I boil in a bath of tea so they go to bed smelling of peppermint.  I build a home with my bare hands and spend years turning it into a home that I will pass on to my children, who will live with me there until I push them away because of my cloying love, and who will return because they can’t live without it.

Books introduce us to authors with hopes and dreams and fears just like ours.  In my case, and as with any Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my voracious appetite for books is borne of a void.  Each time I read a novel exploring the intricacies of family life and of love, the void feels a little less big, the pills of truth easier to swallow because of the inebriating effects of magical realism.

Josh Rivers

25. Why Read?

“Why Read?”

You can rely on reading.

Lots of the other things that you can do to pass your time and have fun are out of your control. My favourite television programme has ended and there probably won’t be another series because not enough people liked it (which means they must have been stupid), but with a book, it’s just you and the book. It doesn’t depend on anyone else’s point of view – once it’s there, no-one can change that.

In the same way, when I read, no-one is making their mind up about the appearance, setting or accent that characters have: everything comes out of my own brain. If you go to the theatre, or to the cinema, then lots of that has already been done for you. Even if you don’t think that that lady looks like Medea, that’s bad luck because she’s already in it and that’s who you’re going to see. I didn’t think Percy Jackson would have an American accent, but he did in the film and now that’s the voice I hear in my head when I read the books.

Reading allows me to make my own mind up about everything, and make my own decisions: there’s just me and the writer’s words – and that’s how I think it should be. That’s why I read.

William Kelly, age 11

“Why Read?”

I read me because it enables me to go back in time and experience what other people with different standards of living experienced.

I find it really interesting to read about things that I don’t understand, because then I’ll know about it, and that knowledge will never leave me – I even know about the Stone Age now, and that’s not the sort of thing that comes up in conversation, but it’s good to know, because now I’ll never wonder what happened in the Stone Age. I’ll know.

Some of the most amazing people in history wrote their autobiographies, so you don’t have to think what they MIGHT have thought: you can read their actual words. People like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar (and some baddies as well) wrote about what had happened in their lives, so when I read about them, I know they’re telling the truth and that they haven’t got it wrong.

Alexander Kelly, age 10

“Why Read?”

Reading lets impossible things happen to you.

You can be in the story, with the characters, not just watching the story like you would do on television, but actually being there. Even if you don’t know people exactly like in the story, or know the places that they’re talking about; when you read, it’s like you do know those things.

In “Alice in Wonderland”, I think Alice is me, and that those things could actually happen to me in real life. Even if there are things that seem impossible (like girls turning into kangaroos in “The Wind on the Moon”), when I read it in a book, I don’t think it’s fake or unrealistic: I think that there’s a world where it can happen and does (under certain circumstances). When I read these stories, I think that these places are lovely places to be, and that the things that are happening are lovely things to happen. It brings a huge amount of pleasure into my life and allows me to relax in silence, and if I couldn’t read I’d miss all the worlds, the lives and the people in the books who have come to life as I have read about them.

Nina Kelly, age 10


24. Why Read?

The rational benefits of reading have been extolled at length and are varied: it’s an educational pastime, it’s social, there’s a simple pleasure to visiting a well-stocked bookshop or library. But the thing that really interests me is the unquantifiable; the magical: it is the finishing of a book.

It is taking a second to let it settle in the mind and the heart. It is being in – and yet slightly apart from – your surroundings. It is getting on with the business of living after the book has happened to you.

The moment varies in intensity and spirit depending on what’s been read. Sometimes we move quickly on, with the lightness of an untroubled mind, immediately forgetting much of what we’ve just read. Sometimes we linger as we reintroduce the back cover and the last page, feeling heartbroken, inspired, bewildered or philosophical, as the book colours the way we take those first few steps back into the real world. For my part, the imagery conjured up by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia remains with me from the first reading; the lucid recollections leaving a permanent impression on an adolescent mind dealing with the challenges, responsibilities and myriad journeys of impending adulthood. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming: not so.

The finishing of a book is a brilliant thing to experience oneself, but an even better thing to witness.

It’s a joy to watch someone close a book and try to judge how they felt about it from their actions and expressions.

This is what I see as the reader’s “decisive moment”, their pause after the curtain falls and before the applause sounds, the second between the apple striking Newton and the forming of an idea in his head. It’s the stillness and clarity and optimism of that single moment at the very end of any tome that keeps me coming back to the bookshop or library in search of my next conquest and compels me to encourage the same venturing spirit in you.

We never acknowledge it, but we avid book devourers are all in a club. And it’s changed our lives. It’s the Finishing a Book Club.

I call on you to renew your membership today.

Simon Thompson

23. Why Read?

I was read to before I learned to love reading. My sister and I would lay attentively, tucked into our twin beds as my father’s slow melodic voice lulled us to slumber. As he sat reading I would fall in and out of new and familiar worlds, and although I can’t remember any of the books he read, I can remember the feeling being read to gave me: it was comforting.

Perhaps being read to made me lazy, I don’t remember reading much as a child. I was further behind in literacy than most of my year. It wasn’t till University, a little after University in fact, that I would find reading a prerequisite for happiness. Suddenly books were something I had to read, rather than an extracurricular activity to take or leave.

There is a magnificent power to literature, both in fiction and non-fiction, that nothing else in life can give you. My family never had the money to travel beyond Cornwall, I don’t have the money to travel beyond Europe. Yet I’ve seen Canada, China and Australia without needing to leave my living room. I’ve travelled through time, into space, through wars and into the minds of others. When fiction is at it’s best I’ve dropped periodically into experiences so vivid I have trouble separating them from my own. Reading is an inexpensive tool to expand the mind, both intellectually and emotionally.

Reading inspires me to act in the world – not just participate. I understand others better, I am more accepting of difference and more aware of social injustice. I fight ignorance with each new book while simultaneously realising how much more I have to learn.

As saccharine as it sounds, reading makes me think anything is possible.

To quote George R. R. Martin’s Jojen Reed:

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Why read? Why live once when you can live infinitely.

Alice Farrant writes the blog Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

22. Why Read?

I was a sickly child. But I was fortunate in having a mother who was ambitious for me and who had a long shelf for my books built above my bed. I could reach my entire library without having to get up. Nearest to the pillow end were the ten volumes of my Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. I don’t know who Arthur was, but he did a cracking encyclopaedia. It was not arranged alphabetically but quite arbitrarily, so it was perfect for browsing, rather like the London Library. It moved seamlessly from Mme. Roland ascending the scaffold (‘Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!’), a line I have never forgotten, through a cutaway drawing of the engine room of RMS Queen Mary to ‘Dusky Beauties’, pictures of women of the British Empire, always naked to the waist and frequently with discs the size of soup plates set into their lower lips, or long sharp pegs through their noses, parallel to the ground, as if they had been ambushed by someone with a bow and arrow.

Solid reading came next with the complete Sherlock Holmes long and short stories and then Conan Doyle’s Historical Romances. I particularly liked The White Company. Next on the shelf came my Arthur Ransome’s packaged by Jonathan Cape in handsome green covers. People call them the Swallows and Amazons books but that title is one of the dullest. Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea were my favourites. That reminds me of Enemy Coast Ahead, another great favourite; a shabby little Pan book about Guy Gibson. ‘It takes strength to fly a Lancaster’ it told me. Well, I could imagine corkscrewing the plane in an emergency and spiralling out of those dazzling searchlights. Next would be my Observers Book of Aircraft, small enough to fit in my blazer pocket, but actually I didn’t need it if I was out with my binoculars because I knew every aeroplane in the skies of England at the time. No, its well-executed three-views of the Hawker Hunter, the Avro 504 and the Bristol Brabazon (for example) were a kind of roughage for the imagination; I saw myself in them, or making models of them, or improving on them – another jet here, more sweepback there.

Herbert Ponting’s book about being the photographer on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole didn’t make me want to be an explorer, but may have led to my training as a photographer. There were books that one got out of the library but didn’t own. W. E. Johns’ Biggles books passed the time but didn’t win shelf room. I found books in other peoples’ houses that I would have liked to own. Emil and the Detectives (Kästner) was a joy to me and lives on in my mind 60 years later, and so does an American children’s book called Little Britches. I liked Hornblower and would have adored Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey novels; if only they had been available then! On the bedroom shelf was a curious little Penguin that I liked very much called I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner, the true story of a merchant seaman whose ship had been sunk by the German pocket battleship. The war had only been over for seven years when I was ten and cast a long, strong shadow. I had two volumes of the government’s propagandist Britain at War series, one RAF, one Royal Navy. I pored over the pictures, but the text was unreadable. H. E. Marshall’s Our Island Story taught me some history and was useful if one had history prep. Also useful for prep was Pear’s Cyclopaedia which I was given every Christmas by an uncle. But this was a dangerous book, for its medical dictionary convinced me that I had a terminal pulmonary tuberculosis and ruined one Christmas as I waited for the blow to fall. If there were other books on my shelf, I have forgotten them. They failed, then, to be memorable and that is the first thing that a good read should be. Why read? Well, why live? Why think? Why dream?

 George Pownall

21. Why Read?

Reading led me to this series and its most recent entry (20), with its suggestion of a novel use for the marrow. Now that I have imagined an infant Augusta Pownall painstakingly pricking messages that would never be read into the skins of marrows, with that single-minded intensity of concentration that is largely confined to young children, I don’t care to contemplate a life without that image.

Reading is synonymous with the imagination, but it often reminds me why reality is worth bothering with. It forces us to observe and consider, to look and listen, not just talk – everyone’s got stories to tell, and hearing them is how we learn to understand the world. Talking about reading is almost as important as reading itself because it gives us shared language and frames of reference, but above all helps us make sense of our lives and the people in them.

So reading anchors us; it also offers escape of course. Absorption in lives, times, worlds, stories and ideas which are not your own is a voyeuristic pleasure that will never lose its power. The second-skin thrill of reading can be found in a few other places, but never so easily or so endlessly. There is no such thing as diminishing returns here: you can always revisit favourite voices and worlds, but there will always be new ones to get lost in.

No other medium can match the bottomless variety of books: all tastes are catered for. Your access to experience is limited by social circle and a host of other factors; your access to books is unfettered. Everything we’ve done or thought is out there between two covers. Like the idea of hitting Vegas with a head full of uppers and a car full of melons but can’t afford the plane ticket? Hunter S. Thomson at your service. Unafraid of death but not sure why? Seneca is your man.

Books not only admit you to universes of new experience, you can use them to deflect experiences you’d rather not have. We have all been sat next to someone who turns slightly towards you at the start of a long journey, ready to reach across the gulf of loneliness and make a human connection. Ostentatiously opening Chapter 17 will soon shut them up.

I regularly appal friends and family with my sense of direction. I have only the vaguest, shadowy notion of where things are in places I’ve known all my life. Blame books. I had something more important than geography to do in my childhood; the way I orientate myself is never going to revolve around landmarks, compass points or maps. Reading has taught me how to think, how to talk and, now, how to tattoo messages on marrows for those who know where to look for them.

Harry Joll

20. Why Read?

If you were to ask me why I read the fundamental reason is because I was read to by my parents, day in day out, as they helicoptered banana into my greedy infant mouth, and ever since. My father gallantly ploughed through all of The Adventures of Pinocchio, a considerable task that took the best part of six months. Every evening he pleaded with me and my sister for an alternative, but we solemnly instructed him to read on. Later, when I paused to peel my own bananas, and looked around me, I saw shelf upon shelf of books, books, books.

Downstairs in the dining room, the top two shelves were end to end orange Penguin paperbacks from my parents’ student days. Invariably printed on non-acid-free paper, they haven’t aged well. The bottom rows were cookbooks suggesting delicacies from all corners of the globe, but mainly the French provinces. Upstairs in the study were exhibition catalogues, glossy and technicolour and in our bedrooms at the top of the house were the books we actually read. Little has changed. For two summers I ignored every shelf and developed more idiosyncratic pastimes, namely perving on a blameless builder constructing a wall at the end of our garden, and growing marrows, the skins of which I tattooed with messages to the poor fuckers set to receive the hulking beasts as a present. These were impossible to re-gift, or indeed to digest. The rest of the time, I dipped in and out of books, but was never a great reader.

Come secondary school, I encountered such debilitating bitchiness that it was a comfort to read about people being nice to each other, or at the very least, interesting. Enid Blyton was, by all accounts, a bitch of epic proportions, but St. Clare’s and Malory Towers were happier parallels of my own boarding life. I would have trusted the schoolgirl heroine, Darrell Rivers, with my life, at a stage when I didn’t trust those around me not to ruin it. In this fictional utopia, good friendships seemed possible. ‘More’ magazine offered sage advice on the ins and outs, so to speak, of boys. As did The Wife of Bath, up to a point, but I couldn’t pull off her bluster in a training bra and braces. From the pages of books I learnt to empathise; to understand that someone might be upset, and why. From books I gathered up all the information I needed to feel clever, and to prove it. And so to university, where I swapped the Roman alphabet for the hiragana and kanji of Japan, and later swapped right back.

Now my friends are all much cleverer than me, and read voraciously. I read to keep up as much as for pleasure. We’re all doing things that we might have imagined, had we taken the time to think about it, but because these jobs are smaller than our dreams, we trawl through every written word in a bid to project ourselves into another world. If we are to do more than simply exist in our busy lives, we need books to help us.

Augusta Pownall

19. Why Read?

Other people always say things better than you, and like most life truths this is a sort of good points/bad points deal. The good points are mainly related to The Immortal Beauty of Literature. Bad points include: Difficulty Winning Arguments, Takes Ages to Write an Email and Embarrassing Quality of Diary Entries. Language tends to act rough with lay users like you and me so when someone gets the knack it’s certainly a comfort to hear from them. Even coming at second hand, moments of articulacy feel like moments of ownership, as though you could have anything you wanted, appropriately categorised and filed inside your head. I don’t know why some sentences should seem so fist-pumpingly right but I’m too pleased about the whole business to start asking questions. I’ve always thought that being a reader feels a bit like having a blank cheque in a secret bank vault. Maybe it feels even better. Either way, it makes me feel considerably less sweaty about life than I otherwise would.

Still, I’m sometimes nervous about the unfailingly good press enjoyed by readers. I don’t really think of my reading self as my purer self and tend to feel short-changed by accounts that only acknowledge the wholesome bits. Undeniably vitamin-rich though it is, I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that books also offer plenty of satisfactions that are vacuous, mean-spirited or at least reassuringly selfish. E.g. many prove to be excellent resources for thinking up unkind things to say about your friends. Famously, books have the ability to make you feel a little more at home in your own head; they name things you knew but didn’t know the names of and sort of draw your attention to bits of furniture you already had knocking about up there. They put their arms around your shoulders and say “I think you’ll find that this is how you feel”. This clearer or maybe deeper access to your own experiences can (I’m told) inspire all manner of noble deeds, but is also an unparalleled narcissistic high. It’s a bit like being given yourself as a gift, or like jumping out of your own birthday cake (SURPRISE!).

Naturally when I am in a good mood I like to think about how reading makes me a totally stand-up gal by way of opening up whole worlds of empathy, understanding etc etc. And when I am feeling more glass-half-empty, I think that reading doesn’t make me more interested in other people at all, it just soups up my internal landscape, giving me the capacity to be of more interest to myself (which is nice but not necessarily virtuous). I suppose it works both ways really and I kind of enjoy the uncertainty. There’s something pleasingly private and non-committal about the way that reading straddles the selfless and the self-absorbed and something weirdly intimate about the fact that wanting to read isn’t quite the same as wanting to be good.

Isabel Blake

18. Why Read?

We use words all the time. More often than not we abuse them, punctuating them with umms and ahhs, likes and sort ofs; sloppily approximating them to our meaning; relying on gestures to get our point across; barely even hearing the sound of them; and rarely giving a thought to their innumerable resonances. We are so terribly careless with our words.

Some might argue that this doesn’t really matter. So long as we are able to communicate, share information and understand each other then words have served their purpose. I might agree, were it not for the astonishing pleasure to be found in words that are used well.

When you read a good book, you find pages and pages of words treated with the utmost respect. Here is language used with consideration, deleted of slurs and ers, where words have been picked, swapped, and replaced again until the perfect one falls into place.

Moreover, these are words which a writer has spent years choosing. Someone has spent a tremendous amount of time finding the right words and arranging them to tell a story in the best possible way he or she can, and you need give only a few hours – at most, perhaps a few days – to a book to read all those carefully-chosen words. After all that work put in by the writer, reading those words is the least you can do.

I wonder how long it took James Joyce to write one of my favourite lines in all literature, which falls at the end of ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

How did he come up with the crooning sibilance of ‘soul swooned slowly’; how did he even think to use the word ‘swooned’? How did he discover that inverting ‘falling faintly’ to ‘faintly falling’ would create the perfect echo of snowfall, soft but persistent? So much care, time and genius has been put into making this brilliant sentence, and yet it takes us only a few seconds to read it, a few seconds and then we have it for the rest of our lives.

Once you’ve read something so beautiful, so powerful, it will linger in your mind, minutely affecting every other word you will encounter. Even if you don’t remember the exact quotation, it will stay with you. You might catch an echo of it when you next hear the word ‘swoon’, or perhaps you’ll remember to look it up and read it again next time it snows.

Why read? Read because it’s been written well. Read because we all use words, and if we were all to read more we might use them a little better.

Emily Rhodes works at Daunt Books and writes the blog EmilyBooks.

17. Why Read?

I read from a young age and hated fiction. Poetry was something dad read to bore us. As it happens he read Larkin: my sister and I would run into mum and dad’s bedroom on a weekend morning and Whitsun Weddings would come out. I don’t think we appreciated waking up in sunshine (it is sunny in that memory) only to be told our life was dreary, miserable and commonplacely depressing. Sadness is fine as long as it’s yours. This became a joke, then a running joke, then stopped altogether.

My sister would read Swallows and Amazons, but I really couldn’t see the point. She was the artsy child, and I was the engineer/scientist. I read, over and over again, ‘The Illustrated Highway Code’ – landscape format with a red cover and the Vauxhall logo on the front. My favourites were level crossings and how to pass a horse on a country lane. I also liked instruction books for Lego sets, and was a subscriber to ‘Truck and Driver’ magazine – a kind of hobby/lifestyle publication for long distance lorry drivers.

I couldn’t see why you would want to read something that was made up. It didn’t strike me as useful. I liked practical advice, step by step instructions, tips for living in the world. I used to be what is known as a ‘whittler’ – someone who worries excessively – often told to ‘stop whittlin’ on.’ What if I was called on to rope and sheet a flatbed, and didn’t know the techniques let alone the regulations and legal requirements regarding loose ends or wide loads?

Ageing, however, the racing mind needs more than what she can surround herself with. Everyone has imagination, but imagination isn’t actually a very advanced tool. All it really does is combine things it already knows in different ways. Medieval bestiaries illustrate how unimaginative imagination is: griffins, mermaids, centaurs, anthropophagi, all work with the same “something known, plus something known, with aspects of something else.” What you really need is something you have no idea about.

At 16 I did my first bit of reading, about 11 years after I first learnt to process words in an order. I haven’t read much since really, no one does. It was La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by Keats. I looked into him. I didn’t think he was lying, I believed he used to be a living person, which left one option: something had happened to him that was beyond my ken, but presumably it was equally possible that something like his experience could happen to me. Poetry is a record of something possible. Novels provide a whole wealth of possible trajectories.

“Time becomes human time to the extent that it is organised after the manner of narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience.” That’s Paul Ricoeur, from his 3 volume masterwork Time and Narrative. That quote is from page 3, volume 1, and I trust it continues in a similar vein.  I absolutely believe him though. If you believe a fictional character’s life, or feel something in a line of verse, you do so because it portrays the features of temporal experience. It is something which is, for you, (probably) unexperienced (precisely that way), but possible.

To read, then, is to be addicted to the infinite of possible futures. Each thing read is a provisional manifesto – a statement of how the future might (or should) go. There are infinite variations, even from this point in this piece, as to how it all will go. I think this is why Joseph Brodsky could say: “there is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth… If only because the lock and stock of literature is indeed human diversity and perversity, it turns out to be a reliable antidote for any attempt – whether familiar or yet to be invented – toward a total mass solution to the problems of human existence.” Tyranny is only reading one book.

He sounds like a bloody dreamer. Readers seem to be categorised as dreamers, like my sister reading Swallows and bloody Amazons and neglecting the practical, hard-headed school of fact that she’s going to need if she is ever driving behind a horse on a country lane. Every written thing strikes us as a dream. But the dream becomes as taut as a hypothesis, waiting in the background for the correct experiment to float into the present and prove it right or wrong.

There is, of course, another option – that you know exactly what the writer is talking about, that the experiment has already happened. This is normally about love, I think. The chances of biographies matching up is almost zero, but for all its excitement, buoyancy and boisterous falls love is experienced (it seems) the same way. As a topic it is boring and endless, as a feeling it is chaotic, with all the variables of two people interacting in the least programmatic but most predictable way. Reading about love is background research or peer review. Sometimes it explains better what we already know, gives it form and structure and reason. Gatsby ends up alone and rich, and then one fine morning… My current addiction to the sadness of old men winding down gives variously things to aim at and avoid.

Thinking of life like a narrative is dangerous, and fatal if caught too young; constructing the future is an addiction, and turns very sour in the moments when time decides to re-assert that you don’t write your life (it does). Remember this, however, and you are free to know what might happen. Reading strings time together. It creates a useful if illusory framework. The best books take ages to read, only because every line sends you staring into space, thinking how it jigsaws with everything else. Each thing is an opening.

Montale thought, and thought till the end, that “art is a form of life that doesn’t truly live: a compensation, or a surrogate”, he is right. But it doesn’t swamp the past, it structures a future that hasn’t truly had time to live, or codifies the loose end of a past. I couldn’t even begin to drive when I was 6. Maybe my reasons for reading haven’t changed.

Jack Castle