Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why Do We Read?

There was a tweet going around the other day that asked, "Why do we read?"

And I thought about why. For days, actually. Because reading was sort of a knee jerk reaction for me. I can't remember a time I wasn't reading.  My mom is a voracious reader too, so there were certainly books lying around the house. But I don't ever remember making the conscious decision to read. I just always did.

I remember spending most of my free time at the library, reading every single children's book they had, and moving on to Young Adult. I tore through the Babysitter's Club, and the Boxcar Children, and the Little House on the Prairie series. 

Still, I wanted more. By then the librarian Mrs. Crookshank, the apotheosis of all librarians ever with her glasses and fuzzy gray hair, knew me well. It got to the point where I would just start at one end of the shelf and move through forward, reading each book at a time (Boy was I shocked when I got to William Golding's Lord of the Flies in sixth grade. Talk about your wake up call!)

I can still remember the day I discovered Roald Dahl. Man, those are some good books. "The Story of Henry Sugar and Six More", "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "Matilda", "James and the Giant Peach", and the "Witches" just to name a few. I still love those books. If you could point to one event and say that's why you are the way you are now I think Dahl's books are what sparked my interest in fantasy.

His stories have a fairy tale element, mixed in with real life. I found myself wanting to go on the adventures that his characters did. I wanted to have special mind powers like Matilda and Henry Sugar.

I kept reading. In books I found not a new world, but a world that felt real. I think it's part of the human condition that we don't often get to reflect on our own life. We are in the middle of experiencing it, so rarely do we have an out of body experience and think, "This is my life, and I am the person that is living it." If that sounds strange, is it. I have had a few moments where I stepped outside of myself (not like astral projection or Out of Body Experiences) and it does feel strange.

But when you read a book you get to experience someone's life for them, but with the benefit of this awareness. You are aware of this person's life. Even as you loss yourself in the story world, there still comes a sense of actively experiencing something. 

Reading is a cathartic experience for me. I always feel cleansed and whole after reading a good book. Some books are so good they stay will you, they come inside you and take up permanent residence. "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb is a book that lives inside of me. I still think about passages from the book, even though it was at least seven years ago that I first read it. Roald Dahl's books live inside me, and so do Stephan King's, and Jim Butcher's, and so many others. It's wonderful to be filled up by all these other lives. 

I think it's part of our nature to feel alone. Even when we are surrounded by friends and loved ones, we are still alone. I don't mean that to sound depressing, but as a reflection on how we feel. You are the only person (hopefully) inside your head. Even your closest friend doesn't know exactly what is going on in your mind. Why you think the way you do; why you feel the way you do. Only you can ever know exactly what you are feeling and thinking. 

And unless you read, you can't know what other people are thinking and feeling.

One of the most profound experiences I have ever had was while I was in massage therapy school. Some of you may know that my day job is as a massage therapist. I received an excellent education on anatomy and physiology, and neuromuscular therapy techniques, but we also had a few classes on the profession of...well...touching people. My best friend who is a nurse confirms she had similar "etiquette" classes on the fact that you would be spending your day touching complete strangers. 

I am not talking about just refraining from the inappropriate touching either, so get your minds out of the gutter. I mean the psychology of it. It's invasive, to go to the doctor. You don't know this dude, and here he is, putting his hands on your throat and asking you to say "ahh". And that is the least personal he could possibly get with you.

So in this first class the instructor told us to go around to each of our classmates, put our hands on their shoulders, look them directly in the eye and say, "I see you in there. I know who you are. I'm not going to hurt you."

That was intense. This class was within the first week of school. Naturally, there was a lot of giggling and jokes made about the exercise because we were all really uncomfortable, and felt silly. But it was still profound. If you ever want to feel vulnerable--like, stripped naked on live television dancing the cha cha while confessing you're in love with someone vulnerable--just look a complete stranger right in the eyes (and watch them back away from you because you're subtly invading their personal space. Isn't psychology fun, kids?). You feel like they are looking right inside you.

I read because I feel like I am looking right inside the characters, and they in turn, are looking inside of me.


  1. I think reading is different for each individual. But I do agree with your well-put analysis as to why you read. It’s beautifully thought out and well written. For me, in any light, reading understands who one is. Books, especially well-written ones, are steppingstones into the unique qualities of what constitutes this world that is shared with one another, day after day, which in its own way reassures one that they’re not alone. Books grant one to see things in a different light, even when it might not be clearly understood. Such are the books of knowledge, which cradles man’s existence. In my novel, “Mommy’s Writings: Mommy, would you like a sandwich?” it prayerfully inspires the love of God and uplifts the human spirit. With your love of books, perhaps, you might stumble across my writings and read it–I hope so. Merry Christmas, Elizabeth Poole!

    Suzanne McMillen-Fallon, Published Author (available early 2011)’sWritings.html (currently not active)

  2. Very well-written post!

    I think my main reading reason is (and has always been) escapism. I love curling up alone and entering someone else's world.

  3. Suzanne: Thanks for stopping by! I'll have to check out your book. Merry Christmas!

    Tara: yeaaaaah escapism is a huge factor for me too. I love leaving myself and entering another world.