To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or one’s orientation toward it. (Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age)
I had to respond as well because one of my most vivid childhood memories is of reading – anything. In the summertime, Mom would take us to the library, and I would pile up as many books as I was allowed to check out. For Christmases and birthdays, I can remember opening books and stacking them next to me, salivating over all the great journeys I would take. I have always loved to read. Yes, there were moments when I was assigned certain texts I wasn’t thrilled about – A Tale of Two Cities, for one. Overall, though, I would delight in reading assignments and summer reading.
Why do I like to read? First and foremost, because I can’t help myself. I recently told a friend that the best way to torture me would be to leave me somewhere I had to wait without a book, like a doctor’s office or my classroom during a quiz. And well, to be perfectly honest, I think it is a wonderful way to be lazy without actually being lazy. Let me explain. I tend to be a bit of a Type A personality and have never been one to relax easily. But when I read, I feel as though it is a worthwhile pursuit, but I am sitting on my arse doing absolutely nothing physical. I love that! More than that, though, is the involvement in someone else’s life. I don’t like the word ‘escape’ when discussing reading. I “escape” when I go to the movies and physically and visually leave my life for a bit. When I read, I feel like I’m right there, next to the detective investigating the crime, sitting on the sofa beside one of Raymond Carver’s characters, a fly on the wall in Hemingway’s fiction. It is a way for me to participate without actually participating. As the Greeks enjoyed drama as a purging of one’s emotion and desire, so too do I enjoy reading for similar reasons.
In the past couple of years, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about books. I just read, moved on to the next text and shelved it away. Right now, though, I am teaching a literature and writing class at the local university and forgot how much I love to discuss literature. It isn’t just a solitary pursuit. I love making the connections in my own life and seeing how certain themes play out differently in different authors’ hands. I enjoy seeing others do the same thing. I love when my students come in and with faces quite surprised, tell me how much they enjoyed Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Last week, we discussed Watchmen and I relayed my own background as a Nancy Drew/Babysitters Club reader and how shocked I was when I realized graphic novels were not at all comic books, but that many comic books weren’t simply “comic” either. My students came up with all sorts of intriguing ways to look at Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, characters in the book.
For me, literature is not simply a hobby or pleasure. It is a bridge across my own inexperience and naive perspective, a lens focusing on periods of time I will never know, people I will never meet, and terrains I will never traverse. I do not view reading as a dissatisfaction with my life (I quite like my life, for the most part), but more, my constant dissatisfaction with ever fully knowing life in the way others do. Simple, I suppose.
What about you? Why do you read?