I have been pondering the question: Why do I read?
The not-nearly-famous-enough Somerset W Maugham begins his short story The Book Bag like this:
“Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent or praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe.”
Maugham, famous for his wit and turn of phrase, offers three possible reasons. Education, relaxation or escapism.
Before evaluating these three, let me jump back about forty years to when I started reading. My parents were both great readers. My mom decided that if she can only give me one thing, it would be the gift of reading. She did this by employing that celebrated parenting technique called “Bribing.”
She paid me what would now be five American cents, not adjusted for inflation. This was not enough to buy a bicycle, but did keep my mouth filled with various treats while I tried to figure out what the wolf, dwarf, or talking mirror would do next.
Ever since, I have been able to immerse myself in a book and go on adventures all over the galaxy. My friends know that I am a reader, and quite a few have remarked that I am never without a book. My mother, it seems, succeeded in her goal.
The first big book I remember was Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. I remember the sense of accomplishment that I experienced once I read the 700-odd pages. After all, the book nearly weighed as much as I did back then.
During the last six months of my extremely boring National Service stint, I completed more than a hundred and fifty books. It was the first time I had read Dune. I was also introduced to Max Weber-not the German political economist, famous for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but a namesake who wrote Westerns.
I know I escaped from armed robbers because of what I read in one of Weber’s Westerns. I also read nearly every Louis L’Amour and considered myself quite an outdoors man, despite the fact that I didn’t own a horse, a gun, or a stetson; I didn’t know how to use a lariat either. A particularly disastrous camping trip took care of that.
I have read and reread the Middle Earth Trilogy and Harry Potter. Lemony Snicket, Richie Rich, Batman, The Famous Five, Nancy Drew, Commisario Guido Brunetti, Inspector Montalbano, Inspector Kurt Wallander and Sheriff Walt Longmire have lead and taught me along the way.
Richie Rich made it clear how important generosity and kindness are. He also helped me understand that there is much more to life than money.
I have fought various bloody battles by the side of Leon Uris, Norman Mailer, Hemingway, Heller and Ballard. It seems that war breeds either shell shocked individuals or a kind of camaraderie that cannot be found in anything else. War is therefore either horrible or horribly romantic. I hope never to find out.
I never really enjoyed Stephen King but could not get enough of Dean R Koontz. In retrospect, I do not know what caused my passing obsession with horror and this kind of science fiction.
But, while my trip down memory lane is interesting, I am sure; it does not really answer the question: Why do I read?
Sure, reading has instructed me in many different ways about many different things. I have learned about the winters in the USA, or the smell of spring in Venice. I have “seen” how the late afternoon sun reflects from the Alps and how a wounded duck calls for help.
The various Police Officers and Private Investigators have taught me how to avoid being caught, and so far, in spite of not having committed a crime yet, I am still free. Terry Pratchett, of all people, helped me to evaluate my own religious convictions with a degree of objectivity.
I do not remember a certain author’s name, but she was a doctor or some such thing, and she loved orchids. And now, so do I.
And even though I have read theology, sociology, computer programming, anthropology, future studies and electronic engineering text books, the truth is that I do not generally read for the sake of instruction.
Am I a hedonist then, focusing on my own pleasure? I still remember how enjoying Anne of Green Gables got me into trouble. In retrospect, my laugh was a bit loud, especially at three o’clock in the morning.
I do not think that Terry Pratchett is a particularly gifted story writer, but he can create the most amazing sentences. His books often lack a decent story line but contain lots of great sentences.
I have spent countless relaxing hours in various relaxing poses on beds, in chairs, next to the pool, on the beach, in planes, offices, doctors’ rooms, trains and buses turning pages. Time sped by, and I experienced irritation when the doctor turned up, or the delayed bus eventually arrived.
But again, this is not why I read. It is clear that I enjoy reading immensely, yet I know that I am not a pleasure seeker.
Is it then, a habit, or a less offensive addiction, to paraphrase Mr. Maugham? Am I one of those persons who are too lazy to work in the garden, too inept to do carpentry, too poor to gamble, too stupid to program, and therefore I choose to read?
I just want to make it clear- I have never ever read a Mills and Boon “romance novel.” Whoever told you this is trying to damage my already precarious reputation!
I am not a purely habitual reader either.
One way to answer the question is develop a composite reader who combines some of the elements of Maugham’s three categories. This would be a tidy way to get to the end, but it would not be honest.
I read because I am looking for something. In me there are needs that are not being met by my day to day life. Reading helps me to experience the same success Frodo or Harry Bosch experiences. Somehow reading helps me to answer philosophical questions and needs about life that I fail to get answers to in life.
Perhaps, when I read the Book of Me with my ultra-critical lenses. Experiencing the demons of popular heroes helps me to see that I am not that bad or immature or insecure, as the case may be.