40+ Reasons Why We Read

Frustrated, I once asked a classroom of reluctant readers why it was important that they be able to read.  The answers I got back were demoralizing: "So we can set up our flat screen TVs," "So people don't think we're dumb," and (saddest of all) "because our teachers make us."

I floundered about for a few moments, trying to find the words to express an idea that seemed so obvious to me.  How do even begin to explain trees to someone who has never seen a forest?  Fresh air to someone who has lived their whole lives in a hospital?  How do you convince people who think they know everything that there's a whole world of things they don't know they don't know?

I wish I'd had this list at hand that day.  Maybe I could have changed a few minds.  At the very least, showering them with 40+ reasons ought to at least have earned me the benefit of a doubt.

  1. To experience different places.  Because books are the cheapest vacation you'll find. Want to know what it's like to explore the molten lava fields of Hawaii? Run with wildebeast across the African Sarangheti? Discover the glittering tombs of ancient Egyptian pharoahs?  Climb Everest? Sail the world?  Barter for magic lamps at a Turkish market? All these vacations and more are to be had in the pages of books.
  2. To experience different times.  Until someone figures out this whole parallel universe thing, books are the closest thing to time travel we have. 
    1. To experience the past.  The best way to understand history is to vicariously experience history.  Both fiction (historical tales of adventure, romance, or mystery) and non-fiction (histories, diaries) possess the power to make the past come alive.  And you know what they say: those that don't understand history are doomed to repeat it.  Truer words were never spoken.  
    2. To experience the present/to stay informed.  Books, newspapers, and periodicals help us keep track of what we need to know about the world around us.  (Because even 500 channels of television can't offer the depth of reportage you get in a single issue of The Washington Post.)
    3. To experience the future & explore different futures. There's a reason scientists read science fiction (just because it's a stereotype doesn't mean it's not true): because these works of fiction and non-fiction help us imagine a variety of future worlds and anticipate the challenges that we may eventually face. Think Isaac Asimov speculating about articificial intelligence in I Robot; Michael Crichton exploring the science of genetics in Jurassic Park; Ray Bradbury contemplating the complexities of time travel in "The Sound of Thunder" (the story that introduced us to "the butterfly effect").  Books are like parallel universes, helping us explore the potential - and peril - of the decisions we make now.
  3. To live other lives.  There's a quote plucked from a story by George R.R. Martin: "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies .... The man who never reads lives only one."  And life is too short to live only once.
    1. To hobnob with interesting people.   Want to know how the other half lives? Biographies and autobiographies give us intimate access to the lives of politicians, writers, explorers, and celebrities, all without having to buy a camera or risk being arrested for stalking.
    2. To vicariously live other lives.  Reading provide us the opportunity to experience lives wildly different than our own. Because don't we all want to party with Gatsby, sail with Hornblower, and/or hang with Anne of Green Gables?
    3. To see the world through new eyes.  Literature gives us the opportunity not just to walk in another man's shoes (as Atticus Finch advocates) but to actually crawl into their minds and experience the world as they experience it. The experience is sometimes fascinating, sometimes disconcerting, but always illuminating.
  4. To learn.  Books are the most patient of teachers, letting us choose what we want to learn, who we wish to teach us, and the rate at which we wish to proceed; best of all, there's never a test at the end.  In the words of the late, great Ray Bradbury: "I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it's better than college. People should educate themselves - you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I'd written a thousand stories."
    1. To learn more about familiar things.  Call them interests, hobbies, passions, or obsessions; eventually, inevitably, we stumble upon something (usually more than a few somethings) that fascinates us, whether it be World War II, celebrities, cooking, gardening, religion, or sports.  Reading allows us to indulge and inform our obsessions - however functional or dysfunctional.
    2. To learn about unfamiliar things.  And then there are the subjects that may not rise to the level of interests, but that for various reasons we must master: how to set up a Bluetooth device, how to calm a crying baby, the side effects of chemotherapy.
    3. To satisfy our curiosity. Because life is full of questions, and books contain the answers.
    4. To help us understand how much we don't know.  Perhaps the most supreme irony of reading widely is that it dispells ignorance while simultaneously forcing us to acknowledge just how much we don't know. 
  5. To think.
    1. To give us the words we need to form our ideas.  Our brains have difficulty comprehending ideas for which we have insufficient language.  The classic example is that Europeans tend to think of snow as ... well, snow.  Whereas the Inuit Indians have 40 different names for snow, which enables them to communicate differences in type and texture that we simply don't perceive.  The more you read, the better equipped you are with mental vocabulary necessary to perceive the world around you.
    2. To make us think deeply.  One can navigate through life without thinking deeply (as many reality shows have proven), but what a terrible waste of potential.  Our brains are wired to be able to process enormously complex, abstract, non-literal information, and reading is one avenue that forces us to employ that ability.  Or have we already forgotten Jessica Simpson's infamous display of shallow cognition: "What exactly is 'Chicken of the Sea'? Is it chicken that lives in the sea?"  
    3. To make us think critically.  Reading forces us to question, interpret, connect, generalize, analyze, evaluate, and draw conclusions - skills required to lead a full and useful life in this complex world.  
    4. To make us see familiar things in new ways.   Because just when you think you know everything you need to know about a topic, a magazine article, treatise or book comes along and makes you realize that you've just been feeling around the tip of the iceberg, without suspecting that 90% of it has been hiding under water. 
    5. To build background knowledge.  Brain scientists will tell you that the way our brains learn is by 'linking' new information to information already stored in our memories,  creating 'schemas' - bodies of knowledge.   Think of it like investing: the more money you have, the more you can earn.  Except in this case, the more you already know, the more you are can learn.  Reading is by far the most efficient (not to mention pleasurable) way to build background knowledge.
    6. To flex our imagination & improve our creativity.  Professional authors will tell you that the single most important thing they do is READ.  Reading forces us to venture out beyond the bounds of our known world and stimulates us to employ our creativity to fill in the shadowy areas.
  6. To grow.
    1. To learn important life lessons.  As children, we are all innocent; gradually, life undertakes our education in such important subjects as love, happiness, and loss.  But life isn't school: sometimes it omits lessons, while other lessons it teaches us over and over (and over) again.  Reading is one way we capture and pass on the lessons necessary to survive adversity and pursue our happiness.  
    2. To identify and explore our passions.  Passion is a fabulously fickle thing!  In some people, it is inspired by love, in others, by art or music; in some by religion, in others by math, nature, sports, food, technology, animals, cars ... even, if you believe Orville Reddenbacher, making perfect popcorn.  One can live without passion, but what kind of life is that?  Those who read widely vastly increase the odds of discovering their passion. 
    1. To shape our beliefs.  We can believe what we're told to believe, which has proven problematical in the past (think Nazi Germany); or, we can evaluate the world for ourselves and then shape our own beliefs.  Reading is the door through which we access the world of ideas. 
    2. To form our characters.  The world is full of role models, but they can't all be your favorite teacher in elementary school or live next door.  Reading allows us to measure the content of our character against others, to weigh our strengths/deficits, and to model our own characters accordingly.  Reading helps us take the measure of our limits ... and our possibilities.
  7. To impress.
    1. To gain respect.  In European society, people who are widely read tend to be objects of respect, while those who are poorly read tend to be treated lightly.  Don't believe me? Start dropping Shakespeare quotes and Goethe references into your daily conversations at work and see if your colleagues don't start taking you more seriously.
    2. To gain power over others.   Those who understand complex systems - whether they be technical/ scientific, social/cultural, philosophical, political, or financial - also understand how to manipulate those systems.  Was not our recent economic collapse caused by people exploiting their comprehension of legal and financial systems to their own ends?  What resource do these ambitious folk turn to to build the requisite depth of knowledge?  Books, naturally.
    3. To avoid being taken advantage of by others.  Because the only way to keep those ambitious folks mentioned above from taking advantage of you, is to know as much about systems as they do.  
  8. To improve.
    1. To gain new abilities.  If you want to learn more about a subject that isn't required in high school or offered in college, where are you going to turn?  Books, magazines, textbooks, and manuals.
    2. To build vocabulary.  Research has shown that the vocabulary we use in daily conversation is a small subset of the vocabulary we employ when writing.  Therefore, if you want to build your vocabulary, it's much more efficient to read than to converse.
    3. To improve our communications skills.   Just because you have a mouth and a tongue doesn't mean you know how to communicate effectively.  True story: a family member of mine had to turn down two brilliant scientists for a senior position because they lacked the vocabulary and skill to effectively communicate their ideas.   The #1 way to build writing (and oral communication) skills?  Reading and studying the work of effective writers.
  9. To feel.
    1. To experience deep emotions.  Let's face it - most of us aren't destined to live lives of grand passion and adventure.  But literature allows us to experience every imaginable extreme of emotion: elation, despair, pride, fear, courage, passion, rage, vengence, hatred ... and, yes, even true love. 
    2. To experience unfamiliar emotions.  Thanks to books, we don't have to actually venture forth on a whaling ship to understand the gnawing bitterness of revenge; we don't have to stab ourselves to death at the tomb of our deceased beloved to experience the tragedy of doomed love; and we don't have to have to go through life with a scarlet A sewn over our hearts to experience the frustration and humiliation of Hester Prynne. 
  10. To know who others are.
    1. To understand the viewpoints of others.  Vulcan mind-melding aside, reading is one of the most powerful tools we possess to help us "meld" with other minds and experience the world as others experience it.
    2. To develop empathy/tolerance towards others.  Only once we understand how others think and feel, we can begin to develop empathy/tolerance towards those who think differently than ourselves.
  11. to cope
    1. To escape from reality.  Television has to some extent taken over this function, but when it comes to choice, even 500 channels can't hold a candle to a library full of reading material.  Absorbing yourself in a book is a splendid way to forget your cares, at least for the space of a chapter or two.
    2. To be inspired/to hope.  Stories about other people overcoming difficulties and/or working to achieve their dreams possess the ability to inspire us to work towards achieving our own dreams.  
    3. To know that we are not alone.  I'd explain, but author James Baldwin does so much more passionately than I ever could:  “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
  12. To connect us to our pasts, our communities, and our world.
    1. To understand how we are connected to myth/legend/religion.  Scholars tell us that myths/legends endure because they tell us who we are and explain our role in the world. (Long before science we had titans; long before Ginger vs. Mary Anne, we had Artemis vs. Aphrodite.)   Fittingly, they are among the first stories ever set in print, where they remain to this day, still telling us who we are, still explaining our role in the world.
    2. To recapture our childhood.  Time machines may one day be able to take us back in time, but books have the power actually to slough away the years of our lives until we are children again.  Rereading books that you first read as a child is particularly potent magic.
    3. To explore great themes.  Stories identified as "classics" are classics for a reason: they identify and explore the great universal themes - love, hate, desire, fear - in ways that are uniquely empathetic, utilizing language that is uniquely approachable.  Like myths, they help us understand who we are; more to the point, they help us identify the paths that are open to us so that we can choose which to follow. 
    4. To explore great ideas.  Every generation is blessed with its own scientists, philosophers, and visionaries, but we must turn to books to access the great ideas of past generations.
    5. To share a common experience with strangers.  I recently read a quote that went something like this: "Based on the contents of your library, I can tell we're going to be great friends."  Books not only tell us who we are (Oscar Wilde once said "It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it"), but they connect us with others who share our values and passions.
  13. To enjoy.
    1. To enjoy a good story, well told.  Because, hey, we're human, which means we love a good story: how else were we going to while away all those long winter nights spent huddling in caves?  In the ensuing thousands of years we may have left the campfire behind, but our delight in a good story well told - especially if the story involves one of our favorite themes: good triumphant over evil, or love triumphant over obstacles - remains wholly unspoiled.  (For those of you thinking, "If I want a good story, I'll go see a movie!" you may wish to consider that many of the most stirring movies started as books.)
    2. To delight in the music of words.  Speaking of human evolution, scientists conjecture that our brains are hardwired to identify patterns of sound; indeed, it is this ability to identify patterns of sound that has enabled us to develop spoken language.  Today, this primal love of vocal patterns expresses itself in our universal appreciation for music and poetry (especially poetry with rhyme and meter).  So go read a poem and get in touch with your inner caveman!

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