My usual reading spot is in a Starbucks off of Washington Square Park in Manhattan, which is almost disastrously lame, like traveling to Paris and eating exclusively at McDonald’s or going to London and spending all day in Piccadilly Circus.
I’ve always imagined having a brownstone in Brooklyn with a bay window and a little bench where I could read the day away, arranging the pillows just right and breathing warmly on the window when it begins to fog in the winter. Yet the beautiful thing about books is that it doesn’t matter where we consume them (devour them, really), like lonely, inquisitive carnivores looking for answers and shared experiences. In fact, being surrounded by unbearable dullness — the kind you might find in a fluorescently lit chain coffee shop — only heightens the experience, for the contrast becomes so intense as you fall deep into a story.
When I was very young, I would pretend to know how to read by describing the pictures on the page and skipping over the words as if they were hieroglyphs. By grade six, I got the “reading bug” as my mother would say, and I remember a few particular books from my “young adult”-section self with special fondness:
The Golden Compass taught me how to think critically about my beliefs and sent me into a world I desperately wanted to be a part of. Roald Dahl helped me discover an exceptionally dry humor and a love for the bizarre. A Series of Unfortunate Events by the pseudonymous Lemony Snicket taught me to both embrace a peculiar point of view and to understand my relative innocence. And, of course, there was Where the Wild Things Are, a book more adult than my adolescent self could have ever known.
As I grew older, I ate up more and more novels, with a particular penchant for Fitzgerald, Orwell, Joyce, Foer, Nobakov, Salinger, James, Foster Wallace, Kundera, McEwan, Burgess, and Conrad.
Literature means a great deal to anyone who’s ever cracked open a book’s spine. In fact, I have a friend who keeps her books in a humidity-controlled basement room, as if they were fine wines. While I find such precautions a bit much, a book’s value almost calls for this kind of care. Reading is, and will always be, one of the few escapes that doesn’t kill brain cells or reinforce the loudness and thoughtlessness of so many of our daily activities. And, assuming you don’t keep all your books in a specially controlled room, it’s ludicrously inexpensive in a world that has one paying $20 to see a 3D film.
The reasons why we read are by no means simple, but they are straightforward.
We read for a deeper understanding of others, for a shot of fuel to our empathy tank. The teacher who assigned an inordinate amount of work, the lazy co-worker who unfairly got a promotion, the significant other who seems so bull-headed in her arguing, all of these people become characters of sort within a wider storyline, full of feelings with their own problems and insecurities and shortcomings.
We read to make new friends. In a paradoxical way, reading is a social experience, for one always finds characters that seem realer than life. The act of closing a book brings on a certain sadness as it comes with the knowledge that’ll you’ll be done spending time with a friend you’ve become so close to.
That’s not to mention the community one finds among fellow readers. Even if you like Fitzgerald and another prefers Hemingway, you can still argue ideas and themes with thoughtful criticism, at a length and with depth that no other form of entertainment affords.
We read to escape tiredness and misery. The boredom of the day-to-day and the inevitable misery we experience. We all need time away from our own world, and for me that happens when I open up a good book. We live in an imperfect world, a world that’s never up to our own standards. To read is to counter this. Whether we’re growing up on a farm in Iowa and pining for the big city or we’re stuck in a metropolis, desperately desiring meaning outside of our underwhelming existence, books invariably provide an escape.
When a book can so quickly whisk us away, if life isn’t up to our standards, we’ve only ourselves to blame.
We read to enter into a world in which a character’s pain and difficulties are real, yet they’re a safe distance away, safe enough to both see it with a new perspective and to find that life ends happily, or, at the very worst, it ends miserably but with purpose.
So much of life is purposeless and banal. Perhaps all of life is meaningless. Yet when we sit down to read, the author has already planned out an arc, a story that carries meaning on every page, and invariably ends not with banality but with intention. Even authors like Bret Easton Ellis who revel in the emptiness of the human condition are nonetheless teaching us that this is a choice — that life doesn’t have to be lived this way.
We read to relieve loneliness, to stare our inner emptiness in the eye, to fill the inexplicable hole that expands in our stomach. Deep reading, not the superficial kind we do when we’re flipping through BuzzFeed or our Twitter feed, is one of the few remaining ways that allows us to countenance loneliness or pain or malaise or all the awful things that seem to compromise our lives, even as we experience them.
So often we get caught up in our own reality, in the troubles of our own lives.
There are so many other realities. So many other worlds we can be a part of. So many people with wildly different minds and feelings and thoughts that we can come to understand. So many different pairs of eyes through which we can see the world. We are lonely creatures. Our own storyline can seem meaningless in a world full of individual stories. Yet books show us that this isn’t the case.
Reading, it seems, is the antidote. The individual story, full of ups and downs, can strike us as significant in a seemingly meaningless world. Reading proves that our lives are not as useless as they may seem, that a grain of sand moved a millimeter with a pair of tweezers still makes a different beach.
And so we read.