Why Read?

This question was prompted by a couple of remarks I have read and heard recently, in very different contexts. My title might well be ‘Why I Read?’ but the omission of the personal gives a more consequential air.

The first, and more important, of my sources came in a paper by Peter Cochran entitled Byron’s Way With Historical Evidence which appeared in The Newstead Abbey Byron Society Review (January 2010). Very near the end of his article Cochran writes….

A large part of the interest of studying Byron lies in untangling his lies from his truths, his distortions of history from his games with history.

Now it is perfectly true that Cochran is talk of ‘studying’ rather than ‘reading’ but the statement still struck me as so odd that I wanted to pursue the matter.

Then that very evening I went to a talk by the mystery writer Cath Staincliffe (see http://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2010/09/02/cath-staincliffe/ ) and she remarked, in reply to a question, that if a book did not involve the reader then that meant it was not working for them.

Now taken together these statements might be seen as some kind of polar opposites as to why and in what way we should read: from Cochran’s lofty intellectual detachment to Staincliffe’s emotional involvement. Rather however than testing either position and assertion, I thought that I would more positively make an attempt at sorting out the reasons for which I read; reasons to read. I have no doubt that my assertions and list will be superficial and in need of much revision but still thought it might be interesting to have a go. So why read?

  1. For entertainment. I start with a word which is almost wilfully misleading, but so are many of its synonyms – diversion, enjoyment, distraction, relief. What I am intending to mean is closest perhaps to the last : for relief from life’s reality, from life’s cruelty, from this vale of tears. Perhaps entertainment is best here because it emphasises that reading is one among many sources where such relief might be sought – music, television, cinema, sport. For many reading will not be their primary source of entertainment. It is when reading falls into this category that I believe that Staincliffe’s comments are of most use: when reading for this reason involvement is a sine qua non.
  2. For instruction and information. To learn. Reading matter which provides this should be intended as such. This is closer of course to Cochran’s position and might be seen as reading as study. It is instruction and information about something.
  3. For insight. While this may be seen as identical to (2) for me it is quite different because it can be found in almost any book and is very certainly not limited to reading which is intended to instruct and inform : poetry, drama, fiction can all be wonderful sources of insight (though so can non-fiction). The insights gained are above all about oneself and one’s relationship to the world. Reading as self-awareness and self-analysis.

Now these categories are clearly arbitrary and there is very considerable overlap, especially between (2) and (3); nonetheless I think that all three are essential answers to my question and I would assess the answer as, normally, involving all three. I say normally because I am very well aware of how my reading when depressed is solely connected to my first category. Then I read very simply for escape and relief. This is a tremendously important role which reading plays in my life. But it is one which only functions, and of whose importance and nature I am only fully aware, when I am depressed.

When I am well I do think I want my reading to be more than that. I want some instruction, and above all I want some insight. Now such instruction and insight is not necessarily connected to the nature of the book one is reading: if I am reviewing a book then I am reading critically which automatically means I am using my brain and I am being informed and instructed, even if it is only in the skill of how to construct better reviews.

Returning then to the two original assertions which I wished to test, I can say that I find them both unsatisfactory and incomplete. Staincliffe’s criteria of involvement certainly has some validity if one is reading purely for escape, but I think there is a great deal more to reading than that. Even if we accept that she is talking only of  fictional work (it would somewhat ridiculous to apply it to a cookery book for instance – well unless you a food freak!) I think that it is perfectly possible to gain not only insight, but also information, as well as being entertained. Indeed one could argue that these are essential qualities for all great literature.

But I find Cochran’s definition even less satisfactory. This to me is scholasticism run mad. I can see no point in reading anyone, let alone Byron, if one is not being entertained and gaining insight. I read Byron criticism so I can be informed and instructed, and can gain further insight into a writer I value very highly. To study him merely for the purpose of attacking him seems to me a pointless exercise. Perhaps it can be argued that for some people this is in fact entertaining. Certainly academics take obvious pleasure in criticising other academics and even more non-academics who trespass on what they think should be their terrain. There is a hierarchy and snobbishness in academia and my friend Ellen has supplied me with many examples of this from her personal experience. At root though my feeling is that if you forget or overlook the entertainment and insight factors there is little point in reading at all, unless it be for some very specific and limited reason, such, indeed, as reading a cookery book to find out how to make a particular dish. Life is too short and there are far too many books to be read for one to waste one’s time in this way.

I am sure that this is a particularly jejune, reductive and speculative piece so I would especially welcome comments and criticism.

2 thoughts on “Why Read?

  1. ellenandjim

    Cochran seems to have lost sight of why he read Byron in the first place. He gives no sense if he started with the poems, letters or biographies by others. It’s a hard question to answer: certainly for entertainment and insight, but they seem to me results of some more primary motive. I read to make my life full, to have a far fuller experience of life than I could have from meeting, talking, being around people and things. Nothing compares to what the writing self can produce. Theoretically there’s no limit to how much uninterrupted time we can devote to what we have written, enrichening it, polishing it, bringing into it information, perception, memory, our selves as we cannot show them in public give-and-take quick life.

    Now some writing selves have a much finer and great capacity for content than others; some have a gift for words, and that helps make the difference between different texts. An important element is how seriously the writer takes his or her writing; that does not mean they do not write in genres but how much they think what they are writing down is intensely important and real for them and thus the reader.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. As so often you put your finger on the central point and express it much more fully and completely than I could. I totally agree about the writing self. For me it has become a vital part of my life when I am well: indeed my ability to write, as well as to read, is now one of the essential tests of whether I am well or not. Not that I really need to be told! But it is a kind of objective criteria.

    My own writing is above all for myself. Of course I am utterly delighted and pleased if other people like it and read it; but I would still write if no-one was reading it because it so therapeutic for me and provides a way in which I can order my thoughts and think about the world.

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