It’s a simple question, really. Why do we read? More specifically, why do you read? Why do I read? As simple as these questions are, the truth is that their answers are pretty complicated–and can force us to take a look at ourselves from a new perspective. I’ve recently battled a quarter life crisis of sorts and have faced the fact that, while reading is a great hobby, it’s one that can be just as destructive as it can be beneficial.
Reading is a gateway to experiences that we could never have in our own lives but that we can learn from through stories. William Styron writes in Conversations with William Styron:
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
Still more quotes showcase the importance of reading as a means of experiencing life:
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” — Charles William Eliot
“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” — Gustave Flaubert
“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” — Ezra Pound
But at what point do we block out our own experiences while enjoying those of the characters of our books, of the subjects of our non-fiction? I have found, and I’m quite certain that I’m not the only one, that reading can become a way to not only experience the emotions of others but a way to block out those aspects of our own lives that we are afraid to confront.
Books will never leave you.
Books will never say you aren’t good enough.
Books will never turn away without explanation or cause.
Books can become a crutch, a way to block out emotions when we don’t want to deal with them by immersing ourselves in the experiences that authors share. I can distinctly remember, when in college, picking up a book in the middle of a fight with an ex-boyfriend because I just didn’t want to–and, at the time, couldn’t–deal with the emotional issues that were wreaking havoc on my relationship. Instead of confronting my problems and allowing myself to experience the things that were happening in my life I retreated into my books, into the one thing that would never make me feel as though I didn’t meet whatever standard I was being held to.
This same pattern emerged with the next relationship I had, except the issue was that he and I were living two separate lives despite inhabiting the same house. I passed the time he didn’t want to spend together with my books. Though I eventually realized just how far we had drifted apart, I wonder how much sooner I would have noticed had I not turned to books as an emotional support–as a substitute for real-world experience.
During the aforementioned existential crisis I confronted these issues and have, since, come to appreciate the importance of experience–both that gained through books and that gained through personal life events. I’ve since decided that I can only bring meaning to my life by these experiences and that, ultimately, I need to focus more on the real world side of things. Does this mean I will give up reading? Not a chance. But I have become more aware of the fact that I need to become a better rounded person, and I have been working on this for the past few weeks.
So to all of my fellow readers, I implore you to think about why you read and what reading means to you. To me, reading is a way to experience things I never could in my own life while learning about human nature, history, and the myriad other subjects upon which books speak. Reading is an activity I love, but it is one that I cannot let overrun my life. So here’s to maintaining a healthy reading habit and to soaking up all of the experiences–good and bad–that life has to offer.