We were sitting by the pool, my two sisters and I, on a hot July day, talking about books while our kids either swam (the littles) or lounged, looking bored (the teenagers). Becky and I were shocked when Suzette told us that she didn't love The Poisonwood Bible; in both our minds, not loving that book is akin to not loving, say, chocolate, or long mountain hikes, or shopping.
Suzette explained that she thought it was too long (which even I, a staunch PWB lover, can understand), and things didn't wrap up nicely.
"That's what I love about it, or at least one of the things," I told her. "I like it when books are full of hard stuff and ambiguous or downright difficult endings, because that is how life is."
"See, but that's not why I read," she said. "My life is already full of difficult, hard stuff. I read to escape my life, to see things work out well for other people. To experience vicariously a fairy-tale life."
Since becoming a librarian, I've bumped up against this repeatedly: everyone reads for different reasons. (That means: what I write below has no reflection upon your reasons for reading; your reasons are yours and are therefore right for you. The following are just my reasons for reading.) None of them are wrong, lesser, better or more correct than any others. They are simply different. I suspect that all of them, at some level, are about escaping your daily life—out of the humdrum or boring or painful or anxiety-filled landscape of your current condition and into the wild west or a vampire's existence, Lothlorien or Hogwarts or a space ship.
But I don't read only to escape, just like I don't read only to have my personal beliefs confirmed. I don't read only to vicariously live the fairy tales I will never get to experience, or to find my own vision of the world. I don't read with a need for a happy ending. I think this illustrates something of my own nature; I am no longer hopeful enough to suspend my disbelief enough to really enjoy the fairy tale endings. They make me feel jaded and caustic; they knock me out of the world of the story with a jar, fists clenched and lips spouting a sarcastic jab.
The poet Dana Gioia says that reading "makes us feel, more intensely probably than anything else, the reality of other points of view, of other lives." (If you, too, think about books and reading, you should read the rest of his discussion and then let me know what you think!) Reading, in other words, makes us more compassionate. It helps us realize that our way of looking at things is not the only perspective. I love this unexpected benefit of reading. It isn't why I read but it is something I think about. It enriches my reading.
But honestly: books that end with everyone finding their happy ending are rarely satisfying to me. This feels like a false outcome because in life, endings are so rarely perfect. You have to trade one happiness, in general, for another, rather than getting both of them. Things don't get wrapped up neatly, a gift; they end bedraggled, held together with tape, staples, stitches, twine, and glue. In fact, there really is only rarely even an ending. Stories merge and change; sometimes resolutions are lost in the start of another new narrative. This is why I like ambiguous endings: they feel authentic.
No, I don't read to escape troubles. Instead, the balm of reading is that I'm vicariously experiencing someone else's troubles. I can sort-of know, depending upon the writer's skill, what it is like to be a Nigerian refugee in an English refugee detention center, or a woman in 18th century England trying to come to grips with both the Industrial Revolution and loving someone she didn't think she could, or a woman in modern Scotland who discovers her previously-unheard-of aunt in a psychiatric hospital. Without having to actually experience those things, I can learn the insights they hold. This is a balm because it is a piling up of possibilities: I could survive this if I had to, because this character taught me how. Also because of the human constant in all troubles; even though I have been in none of those situations, I still find those characters giving me some truth I didn't know I was missing. And, honestly (and I am just discovering this truth now, as I write it), it is because it helps me feel more compassion. I don't want to see the world only through my eyes and my suffering; I want to offer my co-suffering to others, even in the metaphoric way reading allows it.
Wallace Stegner makes a distinction between what I think of as "fluffy" novels (the ones that give you only a fantasy, even when they are set in reality) and "real" (the ones that strive to give you something true, even if they are not always set in reality). "It is fiction as truth" that he wants to both read and write, "fiction that reflects experience instead of escaping it, that stimulates instead of deadening." He calls this "serious" fiction, an adjective I will have to put to use.
Serious fiction is what I like to read. Perhaps it says something about my own bits of darkness that an all-happy ending only annoys me. Or about the casualties of my own life, which sometimes seems to be full of bad ends. But I think it also speaks to my search for truth. Serious fiction brings it, hidden in horrific experiences. Truth is also found in the authentically joyful moments, the ones built not on fortuitous plot turns or deux-ex-machina realizations, but on joy despite sorrow.
I read so I can discover truths I can't otherwise gather in my lifetime and my small experiences; to have my knowledge of what it is like to be human expanded; to encounter startling stories and art made out of language. I read because truth, knowledge, and beauty help make me be a better person than I could be on my own.
Why do you read?