The Good Mother
stripped of memory, flayed of everything else

Why I Read

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 lifeā€”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?

 

Comments

Becky K

I think that is true. I know my world view is different because of books. Yeah, I'm technically a mormon girl from Utah. But I've also been a catholic girl in Ireland. I've been a old man in Texas, talking about gathering cattle and cooking biscuits. I've lived so many different lives, and those lives have enriched my own.

One of my favorite movie scenes is from the Neverending Story. The boy is in the bookstore and the bookseller tells him that the book isn't for him, that he needs comic books to make him happy. The boy says, "But I know books." It's so different to read books than to know book. I've always remembered that scene and have been eternally grateful that I also "know books."

Love this post. And loved remembering that summer day.

karen

i love this:
"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."

this is sort of why i read i think. i love being in other people's ordinary worlds.

but i, too, don't read sad stuff anymore. i will read "normal" sad stuff like things that happen all around us but not about terribly sad stuff. i just feel like i know about that and i find it makes me so very sad. i don't even know how to explain without sounding small but i find that i've noticed recently in my life what you pay attention to blossoms. so i try to pay more attention to the good things. to the small things. this is not to say i ignore the bad but i try to dwell in it less. i try to feed the good.

and reading about genocide makes me a deeply sad person. i feel frustrated, helpless and a visceral anger that these things exist in the world. and i already know they do. i've experienced, read, watched enough of it. i don't want to give some of my reading time to it. And if/when i do give my time, i'd rather it be to help. maybe i am too action oriented.

i like to read to grow/to learn/to expand my world. but i still prefer to do that in books about the ordinariness of life. because lately i find that so very extraordinary.

wow sorry it was so incoherent. i am tired :) off to bed.

karen

oh and i do think there's an "in between" not all "not sad" stuff is fluff.

Britt

I think I'm starting to enjoy escapism more and more lately. I just read Speak which is about a girl who gets raped, and I kept thinking, "I really don't want to read about this." I couldn't wait to get my hands on some fantasy afterward. Then I started "If I Stay" which is about a girl on her death bed who needs to choose if she will live or die, and again, I just want to read about some fairies or wizards or something that I never have to worry about in my own life.

I did love PWB, though, and I plan to read it again very soon.

Britt

I'm back to clarify that my above comment wasn't meant to say that I disagree with your perspective. I actually really like the way you put it. I'm just very anxiety-prone so "serious" fiction isn't always a good choice for me. I tried reading "The Road" a few weeks ago, which I was totally loving, but it gave was giving me panic attacks and nightmares, so I decided no to finish it. I guess I'm a worry wort and a sissy. :) If I'm reading about something that COULD happen to me, I have a harder time handling it. I guess I was fine with PWB because I'm never going to the Belgian Congo. Ha ha!

Britt

And now I'm back again to say that there is some serious fiction that everyone should read, like "Still Alice." There is a lot to gain from a book like that, a lot of insight and perspective.

This is what happens when I start commenting before I've gathered my thoughts...

Pat Passamonte

Hi Amy, I read to escape. I read all kinds of different things, but my favorites are stories that suck you into the plot so deep that when you look up and 4 hours have passes, you are really surprised. Often it's a bit here and a bit there, but THOSE are the reads I love. What are your thoughts on re-reading? Even books I love and I keep, I rarely go back and re-read, because if I live to be 100, I'll never get to read everything that I want to read. My daughter, on the other hand, will read and re-read books that she loves. We really don't "get" each other on that point! Have a wonderful weekend!

Kim D

I loved this post and every comment. Isn't it so interesting the different reasons why we do the same thing? I read to go places I'll never get to go and do things I'll never get to do. Some books are my friends, and I love sitting and visiting with them over and over. I do read books over, if I really loved them; some I've read over and over and over again. But I find the kinds of books I'm reading is changing. I'm having a harder and harder time dealing with difficult things. I've stopped three great books because they got to really difficult places that made me so sad that I couldn't continue. Two of them (The Art of Racing In The Rain and People Of The Book) are still on my nightstand. Maybe it's the physical difficulty I'm going through, but I don't think it is. So maybe I read to escape, too. I am willing to suspend disbelief, so much that I love fantasy. My life isn't perfect, but I dwell on the good things since I can't change the rest. I think that has made me a much more content person, a more loving person, maybe even a better person. I choose every day to celebrate what is good in my life, what I DO have. When I started doing that, I realized how very fortunate I am. The only downside is that I just can't read unhappy books any more.

Lucy

you know I love reading discussions. Man, I am lost these days. I haven't/can't/won't read and I don't know why. Which leads me to wonder why I read. Before my mental block, I would have described motivations very similar to yours. I love serious fiction...good novels that really gets life. But, lately, my mind and heart haven't been into the good stuff. The only thing I read quickly was a so-embarrassing-I-won't-even-claim-to-have-read-it period romance. And, afterward, I was angry that I had wasted my time. Sure, I escaped and sure I spent a few hours doing something I enjoy (reading) but I didn't come away with any interesting insights, any depth of feeling...any improvement or wonder or hope. Which, I suppose, I why I read. I guess I like to feel and a book that can move me, for good or for bad, is what I look for. Now, if I could just find that book!!

I love your thoughts. You move me:)

{vicki}

I read for KNOWLEDGE
I read to ESCAPE
I read to have SOMETHING to do instead of being Idle (like sitting in line to pick my son up at school, or sitting in a doctor's office)
I read to GO PLACES that I otherwise would not get to

and I agree with you---I don't always want the happy ending. I was recently dissapointed with a book's ending because I was expecting bad and it turned out good. Not that I don't like good but that's not life.

Kayci

HEY! I think I need your e-mail address....great post BTW.

Wendy

I'm fairly sure that my primary reason for reading these days is to escape my mundane, pointless existence (John has been so upset with me for using the word "pointless" to describe how I feel about caring for our house and children). I would rather go anywhere else in my mind than sit in this house another day and listen to my children fight and whine and feel the pressures of housework I don't enjoy. I would even rather read than write (which is something I'm trying to understand, but perpelexed by).


Plus, I would say that I want it all. I want the painful books. I want the fluff. I want the inspiring books (even if I do find myself muttering under my breath things like "yeah, right, like that would work for me").

I think I also read to refine my writing reservoir. Today, I read half of a Kate Klise book called "Grounded." Normally, I love Kate Klise. Her books are so whimsical and fun and full of puns. But this one is a serious subject and I find myself so disappointed because I think she didn't quite get it right. She didn't dig deep enough to convey the depth of emotion possible (something you excel at). I don't feel connected to the main character and it makes me think what would it take to make the characters in my own novel effective enough to draw the reader in and fully arouse the emotion available. So even though I am not writing (and feeling a total failure in that respect), I am still gleaning insight from the writings of others.

Thanks for the discussion.

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