Day 484 – Why Do You Read?

Why do we read?Was your Christmas merry? Did you have a happy holidays? Ours might have been too good – I’ve been a lazy, lazy boy as of late. I’ve been seeing more of the family though, and balance is what it’s all about (though I do need to be careful not to balance family home life with family homelessness…)

Through all this laziness, I’ve been thinking lately about why people read. Is it to be entertained? Is it to be inspired or to learn new deep truths? To see new insights into the human condition? All of the above?

(Am I getting to querisome?)

This is important to me as a writer because I truly believe the writer’s first responsibility is not to his or herself, but to the reader.

To this end, my working model so far has been to respond “all of the above”. My novel is designed to be a nice, light, fast, entertaining read for those who like to skim, but I’m also trying to include some depth with those bits of symbolism and “reading between the lines” passages that get English majors (like me) so hot and bothered. I’m also experimenting with style so that the whole reading experience is enjoyable, not just the story.

Whether I succeed or not has yet to be seen. But I’m trying.

It occurs to me though that I need to find out the very basic essence of reading to improve my approach to writing. It seems like a self-evident question, but when you consider it, it’s really not. Reading is very much a learned thing, not an innate human need/urge like breathing or eating or sex drive.

Even enjoying other arts like looking at paintings or listening to music has a firm basis in human biology that reading doesn’t quite have. There is nothing primal about reading like there is in other arts. In fact, it is an almost purely intellectual exercise, the exact opposite of primal. We derive enjoyment from reading – it’s not inherent like feeling the sun on our faces.

But why do we get enjoyment from it? For that matter, why does an intellectual activity stimulate such a visceral response in some cases?

I have a feeling that if writers can pinpoint that, they’ll be more successful.

What do you think? What exactly is it that makes reading novels so enjoyable for you? Why do you read other formats (non-fiction, memoirs/biographies, etc.)? Why do you read this blog, for that matter?

I’d love to know – drop me a line or leave a comment below!

Editor’s Note: Just as I was finalizing this post (literally), this came in my email:

http://www.thedominoproject.com/2012/01/reading-isnt-dead-but-its-changing.html

Puts a whole new dimension to the question of reading: not just how we read and what format, but even the type of “literature” we read. (Should be noted in reference to Seth’s comment that old people rarely approve of what “the young people these days” read, or watch, or listen too.)

~Graham

Novel Writing Totals

To date: 56 hours

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4 Responses to Day 484 – Why Do You Read?

  1. Emily says:

    This is a very thoughtful post, Graham. And because I don’t agree 100%, this is also a very interesting post! Personally, I think a writer’s only responsibility is to tell a story that he himself would enjoy reading, and a story that he is proud to tell. The “reader” is so general and the experience of reading so subjective that you’ll be carrying around quite a heavy yoke if you feel you have a responsibility to anyone but yourself. It’s your name on the thing, after all. Basically, what I’m saying is this: I think you should enjoy the ride of writing, Graham, and don’t worry too much. The stress could be slowing down your creativity — and I want to read your book already! :)

    • Graham Strong says:

      lol – thanks for that Emily! I definitely don’t want to do anything to slow down the creativity (at least, any more than it is…)

      I’ve heard a few people lately say that their only responsibility is to write for themselves. I understand that to a certain degree.

      I remember JK Rowling mentioned in an interview once that she kept getting “tips” from readers about how they wanted the story to go, or how she should back off the magic angle a bit, or what characters she should get rid of, etc. She was a little mad about it all (and quite rightly) and I don’t think for a minute that she should have taken any of what the readers asked of her into account. In that sense, the writers should only “write for themselves” and tell the story they want.

      I guess what I’m saying though is that when you write purely for yourself, there’s a risk that you won’t connect with readers. It could be the literary equivalent of talking to yourself, muttering away madly as you walk the windy streets of your mind. I think you have to be aware at every step that someone will be reading this at some point. You need to “speak” to that person in a way that he or she will understand.

      Funny you should use the word “yoke” — I don’t feel weighed down by the responsibility. But I do see it as a yoke in terms of the method of pulling my readers through the story. Except perhaps for experimental fiction, novels are fairly linear things, in terms of how you unfold the story at least. The whole idea (in my mind) is to pull readers into the story, walk them past specific story details at specific times, and, well, hope they enjoy the ride.

      Great to hear from you again Emily! Hope your writing is going well too!

      ~Graham

  2. I think the enjoyment of reading comes when the author allows me to be the person he’s writing about. We are all made up of different people – containing different personalities in different portions. When we read we live partly in the heads and actions of the characters, whoever they might be, testing the waters of our tolerance, morality, joy, etc. As an author, I think your responsibility is to let the reader in, and that requires you to be terribly honest about allowing the various parts of yourself to be accessed by the reader. The characters the writer creates, if done well, are imaginative extensions of the personality of the author, you. Maybe.

    • That’s a good point Duncan, sort of an “exclusive club” of the writer and the author.

      It brings up another point that I believe: that the reader is part of the storytelling process. You say that the writer has to “let the reader in” and I agree. I’ll add to that that the writer has to give the reader something to “do” when he/she is there, allow the reader to interact with the story, if only in the imagination.

      It’s kind of like selling a house in that way. When potential buyers start mentally rearranging their furniture in your house, you know they’re serious. Same with a story — if they move in, make themselves at home, and connect with your characters, you have them hooked.

      ~Graham

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