Three Reasons to Read

What’s the point of reading? Probably a fine question, though we feel bad asking. It’s something like musicians who defend music education by producing reams of studies on the benefits of music for the development of young brains, its correlation to high test scores, its similarity to intuitive forms of math, teamwork, and the like. For some reason, they feel guilty asking if there’s a point to it, so they take refuge in objective justifications that miss the point entirely. The best reasons are that it’s fun and that people derive entirely personal meaning from its practice.

Readers seem to be a little better about this sort of thing. Libraries invoke imagination and ideas and fantasy and dragons and magic and time travel and prairies and kids like you and pirates and talking animals when they’re asked why they’re important. Around the periphery are the familiar arguments: developing brains, etc. But I thought about it yesterday as I wrote down passages from a book of short stories that I’m reading.

There are three reasons that I can think of:

  1. Information. Books contain a wealth of facts, figures, narratives, connections, metaphors, and (occasionally) bits of wisdom.

  2. Leisure. Books tend to be fun to read if I pick up the right one. My wife used to (maybe still does?) read the entire Harry Potter series every single summer.

  3. Alchemy … one by one the fibres snap beneath the immense cold pressure of the earth, then the last storm comes and, falling, the branches drive deep into the ground again. Even so, life isn’t done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree. All over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, in the pavement, living rooms where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes.

I write lines in a notebook from books that I read. I’m a few stories into Virginia Woolf’s Complete Shorter Fiction and wrote down the above line last night (from “The Mark On the Wall”). The first two are perfectly good reasons to read but I’m not sure what they’d be or how long they’d satisfy without the third.