I write a lot about reading – how to read more efficiently, how to remember what you read, how to enjoy it more. But there is one oft-neglected question in discussions on the value of books; why read at all?
After all, why does anyone read? What makes it different to music, films or documentaries? Why are books still relevant?
The question ‘why read?’ is more complex than it appears. It is akin to asking ‘why learn about the world?’
Or ‘why seek alternative perspectives?’
Or ‘why appreciate something beautiful?’
Or even ‘why should we seek to grow as people?’
Reading fulfills all those purposes and more. It is more than a form of entertainment or education. It is a means of living a meaningful, fun life.
There are the benefits which science has illuminated. Reading is said to stave off dementia, reduce stress and improve analytical skills. There are practical benefits. Reading can be done almost anywhere, special formats (audio books, braille, large print etc) make it accessible to most of us) and books are cheap, if not free. Yet anyone who loves books knows that the positive facets are not something which can be quantified.
Here are some of the reasons why I am such a vocal advocate for reading:
Reading is a form of training for living.
Books teach us how to think, how to relate to people, what to do, who we are and who we should be. For the most part, they teach us how to live. And as EE Cummings put it, nothing is as difficult as that. I have yet to meet anyone who does not flounder when it comes to figuring out what they want to do with their lives. Or who they are. Or who they want to be. We all need guidance and books have a unique knack for providing it.
Books enable us to garner more experience and knowledge than it would be possible to accumulate in a lifetime. We can learn from the mistakes and successes of others, applying their wisdom to our lives. As W. Somerset Maugham wrote: ‘To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.’
The knowledge we gain from books has a curious tendency to compound over time.
With each volume completed, a mixture of words, images, concepts, ideas, beliefs and perspectives is integrated into what we already know. Connections form, making this even more valuable. The more we read, the more links we form and the richer our understanding becomes. I like to read as widely as possible to enhance this – philosophy, psychology, science, economics, business, fiction, essay collections, classics, manuals, guidebooks and more. Through careful practice, it becomes possible to draw links between disparate books, meshing ideas together to create new ones.
This practice is not only useful for those of us who write for a living. Everyone can benefit from it. Remember, this is about learning to live and growing as a person. Encoding what resonates with us in our memories creates a unique resource to refer to in any situation. No one can take this away. It is there for life. No matter what.
A beautiful explanation of why reading is so valuable comes from Rebecca Solnit:
‘The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.’
Reading can shake up our world view.
I memorably experienced sudden paradigm shifts in my awareness of cultural relativism whilst reading Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes and Memoirs of a Geisha. My understanding of my purpose in life changed after Meditations and On Writing. My comprehension of human behavior altered after Practical Ethics and The 48 Laws of Power. The way I work was forever transformed by Deep Work, Anything You Want and Small is the New Big. Other books have changed everything for different reasons. Our favorite books serve as mentors, guiding our progress.
Reading requires a degree of focus which is unusual in the era of 9-second videos and tweets.
To complete a lengthy, complex or challenging book requires a degree of self-discipline. It is not easy to multi-task whilst reading (I do it at the gym but that’s as far as it goes.)
Reading can be a meditative process. When I sit down with a book, my mind first wanders off every few seconds to an incomplete task or commitment. I pull it back to the words on the page. After numerous repetitions, my mind clears and I can focus for hours. The capacity to hone in on a single, demanding activity for long periods of time is becoming unusual. It is also satisfying and rewarding. In almost any career, the ability to focus well is a valuable asset. My work as a writer necessitates the ability to concentrate on analyzing and interpreting information. This is not easy to do when my mind is scattered, so I am grateful for the practice I have gotten from reading.
Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work (about the value of deep focus) emphasizes this: ‘Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.’
Reading is both a solitary, inwards act and one that connects us to all which lies outwards.
Just by sitting still, staring at a page, we grow, develop, morph. It is an introspective activity, which provides perspective.
I don’t believe in reading for the sake of sounding smart. Or because work/school demands it. Or to find a sentence which confirms something you already believe in. Or because a certain book is famous and sold whatever number of copies. Or because some blogger has made you feel guilty about not reading. As Nicholas Taleb wrote:
‘Books to me are not expanded journal articles, but reading experiences, and the academics who tend to read in order to cite in their writing–rather than read for enjoyment, curiosity, or simply because they like to read–tend to be frustrated when they can’t rapidly scan the text and summarize it in one sentence that connects it to some existing discourse in which they have been involved.’
Reading can be a means of survival.
James Baldwin read himself out of Harlem and into literary greatness. Malcolm X read himself through prison and towards a revolution. Epictetus read himself from slavery to the sort of genius which resonates 2000 years on. It is pointless to even try and list the countless other people who have pulled themselves out of tough situations through books. As Thoreau wrote: How many men have dated a new era in their lives from the reading of a book?
‘Reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone, or in other words, while continuing to bring into play the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately puts to flight; while remaining open to inspiration, the soul still hard at its fruitful labours upon itself.’