Why do we Read?

I sometimes say that I read obsessively and write compulsively. I usually have three books on the go at once, and if I wasn’t more disciplined I’d probably have at least as many writing projects running concurrently too.

However, I rarely stop and ask myself why it is I read so much, and why I feel compelled to write. Do we read in order to escape reality, or to explore it? I’m still not sure. Last night I was reading História de Portugal Para Gente Curiosa (History of Portugal for Curious People), where I learned that a unit of currency was once called a Real and that the green and red Portuguese flag was once blue and white.

I was reading out of curiosity, and surely with different motives to when I read Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia for the fifth time. Are these two reading experiences the difference between exploring reality and escaping it?

Two other things spring to mind. One is the opening line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”.

She’s not talking about reading, but rather easing us into the horrors of Hill House. But it did make me wonder whether some of our reading is a response to the pains of absolute reality. In other words, we read to stay sane.

Something else that comes to mind is the Preface to Guy de Maupassant’s novel Pierre et Jean. Perhaps your eyes have just glazed over. I’ve just mentioned a nineteenth-century French author, a book whose title rarely gets translated, even in English translations, and what’s more I’m talking about the preface to that book, not the novel itself. Let me reassure you: it’s a short, very accessible book about family secrets and sibling rivalry.

The preface (part of which is pictured) touches on what the reader wants from the writer: consolation, amusement, sadness, laughter…

If all this is true, then we can’t narrow down the reader’s motives to just one or two. There can be many reasons, sometimes all mixed together.

I’m particularly struck by the line ‘Make me dream.’ It links to the quote about absolute reality.

But when I read my Portuguese history book last night, I certainly wasn’t looking for the author to make me dream. I wanted him to present me with reality.

So reading is about escaping reality and also facing it. It can be about dreams and reality, sadness and happiness, thinking and not thinking. It’s a landscape of desires and motives. A full bookshelf is a well-stocked cocktail bar, ready to take whatever order you fancy giving.

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