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Why I Read (as if I need a Reason!)

April 14, 2020

Now, during this time of social distancing, I’m grateful that I have a houseful of books and can’t help but reflect on the pleasures (yes, it does have to be plural–there are so many) I derive from reading. The most obvious is the joy of immersing myself in another world via the pages of a book, an experience as sensual as it is intellectual. Ideally, the house is quiet and I’m burrowed deep in my favorite chair with my feet up and a cozy quilt tucked around me. If there’s rain accompanied by a howling wind outside, so much the better. A hostile world outside my window generates a sense of isolation and pushes me deeper into another world–actually two other worlds.

My outer self luxuriates in the tactile sensation of the book in my hands as my eyes skim over a page covered by a series of funny little squiggles that, through the ages and the ingenuity of man, have been organized into something called writing. Each squiggle is a symbol that represents a sound. Grouped together, they form words. Combined with other words, they convey ideas, thoughts, emotions, knowledge and, in the best of times, wisdom. Surely, this is man’s most important invention. Compared to the written word, the wheel is trivial.

But my inner self takes this amazing accomplishment for granted. It is somewhere else entirely–maybe in the north of France with Emma Bovary, maybe in St. Mary Mead with Miss Marple or it may be in a graphic universe with a comic strip character. Even there, on the pages my brother and I used to call the funny papers, I find people who help me understand what it means to be human. They reassure me that I’m not alone in my frailty. I might be deep within the psyche of someone of a different gender, or with a different skin color. I can inhabit another continent–or another planet. I can live in another century–long past or far in the future. The possibilities are limitless.

In addition to the actual reading, there is the pleasure of shared ideas. There are literally thousands of groups who meet regularly to talk about books. I belong to two such groups, each completely different, both in personality and in our reading selections. Within each group, we read the same book, but when we come together to talk about it, our insights are different–sometimes subtly, sometimes radically. Each member brings a unique perspective to each book and in our discussions we talk about subjects that would never come up in an ordinary conversation. I come away from these discussions enriched. My horizons have expanded. I’ve been exposed to ideas that, were I denied the pleasure of reading and the companionship of my bookish friends, might never have occurred to me.

And yet, for all the practical advantages of reading, that’s not why I read. First and foremost, I read for pleasure–and cannot imagine my life without the joy it gives me.

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