I was sitting thinking about writing a book review, I hadn’t decided which, when the question: “Why do I read?” popped into my head. As I mulled it over I realized that my reasons for reading change as easily as the weather. I guess there is an easy overall answer, one that explains why I consider picking up a book a form of entertainment and do that instead of playing a video game or watching television, but no instance in particular is ever quite the same.
I also have noticed that my reasons for reading have changed as I’ve aged, and as my life has changed. As a kid I began reading at a very high level at a young age. I was only in grade one or two when I had outgrown the children’s section at my local library. I can remember the librarian giving me a reading test; having me read aloud from the book I had chosen to take out of the adult section, and my subsequent pride in being given an adult library card.
In those days I had little interest in fiction, I was too busy devouring books about wildlife and natural science. The first author I remember being avidly addicted to was Gerald Durrell, the younger brother of famed British novelist Lawrence Durrell. As a kid I had a limited breadth of interest; animals and more animals. Gerald Durrell’s tales of animal collecting around the world and his attempts to open his own zoo were a perfect fit.
Of course, as I grew. my interests did as well, and I was soon devouring almost anything that was put in front of me. The only thing that kept me remotely interested in schooling, all the way through two years of university, was the chance to keep reading new books and ideas. The problem was that by the time I reached nineteen, I was starting to feel a little jaded.
Although it was far from the truth, I was beginning to feel like I had read everything there was to be read. It appeared that every book I was picking up was simply repeating something that someone else had already said. It didn’t stop me from reading, but I found that I was drifting into what I call television reading: books that require little or no effort and are read to simply pass the time. I doubt I could recall a word of what I read from any of those books.
Thankfully, an interest in words was rekindled by my career choice. One can’t decide on a career as an actor and not like words. For me the fascination was the nuance and variety of meaning that could be read into any word, dependant on context and motivation. As an actor your job is to interpret the words another person has written, enabling a two-dimensional character to spring to life.
A good actor will take the clues hidden in his or her dialogue and create a character who would speak that way. Hidden among sentences are motivation, temperament, and the very essence of the person you are supposed to be portraying. Plots develop out of the interweaving of the characters and the conflict in their motivation.
All this information has to be communicated to an audience through dialogue; there are no descriptive passages in a play that set the stage or provide background. Perhaps that is why play scripts are usually so deathly boring to read. Without the actors, there is no action to grab our interest.
With my ear differently attuned, I returned to reading, listening for the clues I had been trained to find in a script. Dialogue and the language the writer used were my yardsticks for judging the quality of what was written. I was reading for the pleasure of hearing the words working with each other to create a mood, an atmosphere, and letting the story take care of itself.
For a while this was enough to keep me satisfied with an author. As long as the words gave an interesting “performance,” nothing else mattered. However there is only so much of that style one can take, and there are very few authors who are capable of carrying it off. Too much of it comes across like “the idle picking of boils by a stable boy.” (Virginia Woolf, proving that she can be as catty as the next person, commenting on James Joyce’s Ulysses.)
I missed stories. I don’t just mean adventures and such, but I wanted the characters I read about to be doing things. Falling in love, losing a job, climbing a mountain, or fighting dragons; it didn’t matter which. But I also wanted real people, who weren’t just the cut-outs of television and film, and situations that progressed with a degree of logic, even if the circumstances were highly illogical and fantastic.
I’m still avoiding the question of why I read; all that I seem to be dealing with is what I look for in a book or from an author. I’ll justify that by saying, without a definition of what I want in a book, I would be hard-pressed to answer why it is I read in the first place.
What it really comes down is that when I read a work of fiction I want to be transported out of my own life. As the old saying goes, nothing makes you forget your own troubles quicker than somebody else’s. Well, the same applies for fiction. A good author will create a reality that is so captivating that it enthralls you to such a state that you are able to forget your own existence.
This does not mean that I only read fantasy or science fiction—although they do seem to be the writers most capable of fulfilling my objective, any author worth their salt should be able accomplish the above description.
Nothing has changed as far as what I want in a novel or story. I still look for imaginative use of language, great dialogue, and interesting characters, but it all has to be combined to work within the context of a story. I read to be educated, enthralled and enlightened all at once.
Obviously reading is a passive form of entertainment, but unlike most television and film it requires active participation on the part of your brain. They still haven’t come up with a way of being spoon-fed literature, although I guess audio books are close. I read to keep my brain active and generating ideas. I want to be made to think, something that television doesn’t do very often.
Why do I read? I read because it allows me to visit old friends, and make new ones. I can travel across the universe and around the block without leaving my house. I’m introduced to new ideas, and reminded of things that I’ve forgotten. I read to learn about things I know nothing about, and to challenge what I think I know.
I read because language fascinates me. The way that words form sentences, and thoughts; how paragraphs turn into chapters and ideas; and how chapters turn into stories that captivate and enthrall. It still amazes me what can be communicated by simply stringing together a series of symbols on a page that on their own mean little or nothing.
Books have been my companions through the best and the worst times in my life. Quite frankly they have been a damn site more dependable than most humans I have known, in terms of cheering me up, making me laugh, and being available when I need them. They’re not replacements for real human friendship, but they come awfully close on occasion.
In the end though, what it really comes down to is that I read because I love to. I could probably go on for pages coming up with reason after reason for why I read, but it will always come back to that simple fact. There’s probably some deep psychological meaning behind my love of reading, but frankly I don’t care.
Doing something because you love to do it is sometimes not the best reason, but in this case it will have to suffice.