I’m currently in that familiar predicament which occurs every week or so: I’ve finished reading a book and I’m about to choose which one to start next.
Oh, the choices. I’ve been wanting to start Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia series, but there’s also Moby Dick waiting on my shelf. I haven’t read Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, nor have I started the Agatha Christie books that I bought last month. And then there’s Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – the only book I’ve started and never finished. I want to go back and conquer it, just so I can say I’ve done it. It’s my Everest. But the drive to complete it has been overshadowed by the growing number of new books that I accumulate every month. They spread through my house, filling up space, a plague of words and pages.
When I do find the book that I want to read, I’ll curl up on the chaise lounge in front of the heater, surrounded by my library. And I’ll be happy. Reading relaxes me in a way that no other activity can accomplish. It centres me, allows me to reconnect with some vital part of me. I need to read; I need to read every week. It is part of who I am.
Despite the fact that reading books is such an significant part of my life, I don’t often reflect critically on why I choose to spend so much time engrossed in the written word. It occurs to me that a lot of people take reading for granted: it is something we do without giving conscious thought about why we do it. It often feels like an ingrained habit – I’ve been reading my whole life, so why stop now? Nothing feels more natural than sitting down with a book. But then I look at friends who haven’t read a book since high school – those philistines! – and I wonder what separates me from them. Why do I have an overwhelming compulsion to pick up a book and read?
Some of my earliest memories involve reading. I remember dragging my parents to the book fair at primary school, where they made an investment in my future by purchasing The Twits, by Roald Dahl. I quickly fell in love with his immortal tales. They were the first books that I remember reading on my own, because I was too impatient to wait for my mum to sit down after dinner and read them to me. The BFG, The Twits, The Witches, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sparked something in my imagination, transformed the way I saw books. Roald Dahl had the incredible gift of capturing how children think; he knew how to excite their imagination and speak to their innermost desires. He understood that the world was not a mundane place, but one overflowing with fantastical creatures and adventures. He knew that a simple tree could be a stairway into the sky; a paddling pool could be an endless ocean, brimming with gargantuan monsters. Unbeknownst to me at the time, his stories also taught me a great deal about narrative structure – how a story should build towards a climax and resolution. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in particular, followed the pattern of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, laying the foundation of my future understanding of narrative.
The amount of time that we dedicate to reading seems to wax and wane throughout our lives. I’m often jealous of how the students in my Creative Writing classes read so much more than me. I remember when I was their age, reading two or three novels each week was par for the course. When I was doing my PhD, a few years later, I was expected to read as much as possible. One of my favourite memories was when our house lost power for three days following a storm and I spent the evenings reading Isaac Asimov’s robot novels by the flickering light of the gas lamp.
But as we get older and life presents other priorities, it is easy for reading to fade into the background. Family commitments and social activities become increasingly important. I realise that I am in a privileged position – as someone without any children, or an extended family, I can afford to dedicate large amounts of time to my own hobbies. These days, I aim to read just one novel every week, but even this doesn’t always work out. Life gets in the way. I’m often tired when I get home from work; lying on my chaise lounge with a book threatens to put me to sleep. Or, more commonly, I find that work doesn’t stop at the office door – I have assessments to mark and stories to write. I enjoy this extra work – it’s become part of my identity. Yet I still find myself allocating time for reading. And I’m pretty determined in this pursuit; I usually reserve a few nights each week to spend with a book.
It is simple for me to prioritise reading in this manner; as someone who teaches writing, discussing texts is part of my job. It’s a convenient reason, but the truth is that I would be reading books regardless of my career. It’s just part of who I am. One of my best friends is a triathlete: she wakes up before dawn and puts in a few hours of training before work, often spending her weekends in competitions. Nothing sounds more unappealing to me. We often joke about it. Her lifestyle sounds like my idea of hell. But it’s really a matter of priorities; my friend prioritises physical training, whereas I prefer to spend my time reading. They aren’t mutually exclusive – even I manage to drag my sorry arse around the block a couple of times each week – but our interests to some extent determine the lifestyle we lead. However, this still doesn’t explain why I’ve chosen to make reading such an integral part of my weekly routine.
I am meticulous in my record-keeping about books. Every time I finish reading a novel (or a short story), I carefully record the title, author, and year of publication on a database that I’ve been keeping since 2010. The database provides an insight into my reading patterns. Back when I first began keeping the database, most of the novels I read were published in the nineteenth-century (or older), reflecting my research interests at the time. Looking at the entries in the database for 2016, most of the books I’ve read this year were published in the last 18 months. I go through phases. I can chart my Kurt Vonnegut phase (2011), my 1950s apocalypse novel phase (2012), my H.G. Wells phase (2010). I look back at some of the books on this list and can only remember the barest of details about their plots; others have stuck indelibly in my thoughts. In some strange way, this database is no mere list of books, but a chart of my growth over the last few years. In the same way that parents record their child’s height by scratching marks on the doorframe of the family home, I have recorded the progression of my literary development.
Some people maintain that the real allure of reading is its inherent escapism. It allows the reader to be transported to a different world, to live a different life. I can certainly understand that desire, but – for me – reading has never been an opportunity to escape. The books that I read – yes, even the trashier ones – usually attempt some sort of engagement with real issues and real anxieties. Even if that engagement is hidden under terrible prose or garbled analogies. Some books reinforce our social framework; others challenge or subvert that framework. Sometimes they merely speak to our human desire for adventure, to participate more actively in the myths and belief structures that have formed our society. The opportunity to join characters on a quest does not represent a running away from something (an “escape”), but rather a move towards something, an embracing of shared humanity. It exposes us to ideas and cultural frameworks that we would not otherwise encounter. As enjoyable as it is to become lost in Middle Earth or attend classes at Hogwarts, these reading experiences are not disconnected from our reality, but serve to enrich and empower our imaginations.
When I’m choosing a new book to read, it’s often the ideas that attract my attention. And this is why science fiction has become so important to me. I love the grand ideas, the thought experiments that drive SF. It is a genre that is uniquely positioned to comment on humanity’s relationship with science and technology, something that is increasingly relevant as our lives are becoming defined by these terms. I love seeing an author take a premise and develop it into a fully-realised world. I love seeing the social consequences of that premise: how would our world change if this were reality?
As someone who enjoys writing, reading has always been a learning exercise. I can’t read a piece of fiction without noting the diction and syntax. Sometimes I go over the same sentence two or three times, tasting it, examining the punctuation, marvelling at how those unique words in that unique order somehow conjured a vision or feeling inside my head. It’s a magical experience when I find a sentence that speaks to my heart, as if the author had written it just for me. And it’s not just the sentences that I relish – it’s the broader flow of the story. I could spend hours talking about Hemingway’s incredible clarity of style and how his Iceberg Theory has shaped my own views on communicating themes. Or how J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the perfect example of a novel where every single sentence builds either character or plot. Nothing is wasted. Narrative structure has always been a passion of mine. I am fascinated with the way Italo Calvino constructed his nested narratives in If on a winter’s night a traveler, and how David Mitchell adapted the idea for Cloud Atlas. I love novels that begin in media res; I love recognizing sophisticated homages to other works of literature. As I read, I am always learning.
Despite all of these musings, the closest I’ve come to capturing why I enjoy reading so much is the frustratingly vague “It’s part of who I am.” Even this doesn’t quite communicate the connection I feel with the written word or the ineffable joy I gain from the activity itself. It’s just what I do. Yet, in the end, perhaps the fact that reading is a habit of mine is a good enough reason on its own. It is a habit that I have spent time cultivating; it is something that relaxes me. It is, over time, a habit that has come to be part of my sense of self. And it’s worth remembering, every now and then, where that passion comes from.
I’d love to hear from other readers on this subject. Why do you read? What drives you to pick up a book?