Why we read

Joshua Silva
February 28, 2023
‘In our village, folks say God crumbles up the old moon into stars.’
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Why do we read? It’s a silly question obviously only asked by someone with too much time on their hands. But in my experience, the silliest questions often have the most profound answers. I’ll try to ease you into the silliness but prepare to become profoundly profounded.

So why do we read?

A short answer could be: we read for many reasons including but not limited to education, entertainment and exercise for your brain. Facts, fun and focus so to speak.

A slightly longer answer might read:

  1. To invest ourselves into the lives and perspectives of different characters and people, extracting out morals as they overcome their struggles. Think of it like trying on different personalities and worldviews risk free.
  2. To learn something, and/or justify the purchase of ludicrously expensive textbooks, only to reference one or two pages before feeding them to the dust bunnies . . .
    Or . . .
  3. To – just for a brief, brief moment – be reminded that feelings do exist and it’s perfectly natural to have them, and everyone else goes through the same stress and misery and lonely Saturday nights and stubbed toes and heartache and sleep-deprived all-nighters sometimes, and wow this is a long sentence, and all of that is okay, though it’s not really, but there’s nothing you can do about it, so have a cup of tea and get on with it.
    That, is what we’ve lovingly termed the “human condition”; that life is hard but everyone else feels the same way too sometimes so you aren’t alone.
    Let me say that again. Life is hard. But you aren’t alone in feeling like that.

Now, if you’ve got a minute or two, an obnoxiously functional pen and a few of those sleep-deprived neurons to indulge me further, here’s why that third reason – reflecting on the human condition – is the most important of them all and why you should try it more often.

‘I felt emotions of gentleness and pleasure, that had long appeared dead, revive within me. Half surprised by the novelty of these sensations, I allowed myself to be borne away by them, and forgetting my solitude and deformity, dared to be happy.’
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

How much is your imagination worth? Personally, I haven’t been able to narrow it down to specifics but I can confidently say more than 700 million USD. That was Amazon’s price tag for creating season one of The Rings of Power – a TV adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Second Age of Middle Earth, set long before the events of The Lord of the Rings.

And let me just say it looked and sounded incredible, magnificent in fact: the mythical, Atlantis-like city of Númenor dredged up from the depths of Tolkien’s writings; the golden and gleaming Mallorn forests of the elves in all their heavenly glory before the magic began to fade; the grandeur of an industrious dwarven city before greed got the best of them; even the tragic yet surprisingly stunning scenes of Mount Doom’s first temper tantrum in its full explosive pyroclastic majesty. And the orc designs *chef’s kiss*. It looked good, like really good. Some serious time and money went into it (I mean this is Bezos we’re talking about), but so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if I zoomed in on any given frame and saw each pixel with a little hundred-dollar bill attached to it. Do yourself a favour right now and look at some screenshots if you haven’t seen it. The visuals were breathtaking.

But they were all of them deceived.

Despite the heftiest expense in all of television, it didn’t quite capture the magic that the books had not just in spades, but by the truckload. Turns out you need more than just pretty pictures to make a good story. Somehow they had made the technologically advanced and immersive audio-visual experience of a film less entertaining than a plain ol’ book. You remember those things right? Books? Those little dingy stacks of plant matter stuck together with all the funny-looking lines on them? Most of them don’t even have colours. How primitive. And yet those TV executives, what amateurs. That’s like a horse winning a race against a fighter jet.

I suppose that old saying has some truth to it: ‘the book was better’. I’m sure you have your own examples. Books adapted to film that on-paper should’ve been fantastic. Instant classics. But instead they looked like Hollywood had taken a piece of your childhood, put it through a high-powered blender, and served you the pureed baby-food of a mess that came out the other end. How very respectful of them.

It seems that all the VFX, all the talented actors and actresses, all the carefully crafted props and sets can’t match what many of us take for granted. They can’t replicate the unreplicable, the superpower we all inherited from nature: imagination.

‘In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves; it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.’
– Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

It’s easy to forget that these words you are reading are actually just squiggles on a screen. That your brain automatically converts this emotional Morse code of dots and dashes into thoughts and feelings, into people and places. Reading then, is inherently an act of creation not consumption. Before you can think and feel and ultimately experience a piece of writing, a piece of art, you have to imagine it in your mind.

To overuse the same example, when you read The Lord of the Rings, you imagine what the people and places look, smell and sound like. You imagine how lush and peaceful a life in the Shire would be, how towering and terrible a flaming balrog of Morgoth stands before the Fellowship in Moria, or how ancient and wise our friendly neighbourhood wizard Gandalf really is.

And whatever image such words conjure in your mind is uniquely your own. No one can take that from you, and there is no religion or government or ideology getting in the way of the experience. Readers create a written work just as much as the writer. After all, it is within you that dead words are given life by the spark of your imagination.

‘And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.’
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Reading is a gateway to different worlds, different perspectives, different facets of the human condition. We can’t experience it all in one lifetime. Life is too fleeting for that. But that thought made early humans very sad, so they invented the next best thing:

Art. Stories.

The ability to package emotions and memories and unique perspectives into physical form. Into ancient hand stencils on cave walls; into statues and murals of their myths and gods; into a bunch of squiggles we call words, conveying thoughts on a page. And even more miraculously, that same art can be viewed or read or experienced (I refuse to say consumed), to evoke similar thoughts in another’s mind. In your mind. That is real life magic; that is telepathy.

And as long as a piece of art remains intact, not even time can get in the way of this emotional exchange across the ages. You can still enter the minds of the ancients. Go read The Epic of Gilgamesh, or Homer’s Odyssey, or the musings of the illustrious lyric poetess Sappho, who earned herself the grand title of ‘The Tenth Muse’. Go sail on the seas of ages past. All it takes is a good piece of writing, a good piece of art.

But perhaps more importantly, with each new perspective we accumulate, we broaden our empathy as well; our capacity to care; our capacity to be humbled by remembering we’re all just monkeys walking around in clothes playing at being people and pretending to know what we’re doing here; our capacity to see others having a shit time and share a look that says,
’I can never truly know how you think or feel, but damn do I understand.
And damn do I hope you understand too.’

‘someone will remember us
I say
even in another time’
– Sappho, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

Ultimately, each of us sees a different view of the world because the wrinkly, raisin-looking supercomputers between our ears are each tuned to slightly different channels. Where I see red, you may see orange. What you call music, I may think is noise. My feeling of happiness or sadness or pain may be different, perhaps heightened or duller than yours. We can never truly cross that gap.

Now that would be cause for despair, but art, the making and experiencing of it is the best bridge we have to try. And we have to try because art and stories, and the thoughts and feelings they produce, are as essential to humans as food and water, as the air we breathe. You think that an exaggeration. But imagine for a second: a life without books or music or films or games or poetry or any other product of human creativity. Without every story ever told, every painting of a beautiful moment, every monument built for gods or kings or queens in an age long forgotten. Without perhaps the most undeniably human experience of all: storytelling around a campfire (or a forum, or a D&D table or a book club for that matter ;)). Stories are the software of the mind, and we need them as much as they need us.

When I ask ‘why we read?’, I’m asking the wrong question. Why the hell wouldn’t we read? Stories keep us going. They keep us learning and empathising. They remind us we’re alive, that everyone around us is also alive, and in doing so, they keep us alive through the worst life has to throw at us.

So, take that pen you have with you and write something. Pick up that book beside you and conjure up a world between the pages. Use that spark of imagination in you. To answer the other question from earlier, the value of your imagination is incalculable. Priceless. So don’t waste it.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, in the words of the much-missed Robin Williams (as originally written by N.H. Kleinbaum in Dead Poets Society):

‘We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.
And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for . . .

That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.
What will your verse be?’