Reading gives us access to new ideas and new knowledge. It lets us visit distant times and unfamiliar locations, and temporarily inhabit other lives and relationships. We explore what is happening in our world through news reports and in-depth articles. We explore skills like cooking and learning a language. Academic reading pushes us to learn by exploring, whether it’s Feynman’s physics lectures, essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And exploration happens with both nonfiction and fiction, as Bill Gates said: “A lot of the reading I do is so I can keep learning about the world. But I love the way good fiction can take you out of your own thoughts and into someone else’s.”
Escapism has a bad rap, but sometimes you’ve got to get away and reading offers an exit. I was born in 1968 when my sister was just 13 months old. My father was a graduate student and the hot streets of south Philadelphia simmered with tension in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. My mother, a nice Catholic girl from Denver, was stuck in a third-floor apartment with two infants, no air conditioning, and no money. She credits J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with getting her through those days, as she escaped to the elves and orcs and misty mountains of Middle Earth.
Like my mom, the women of Japan’s Heian court around 1000 CE were confined, but by their culture rather than temporary circumstances. Only men were permitted to read Chinese characters and literature, but women and men communicated via written poems using the lesser Kana script, a phonetic transcription of spoken Japanese. One woman (known today only by the name of her famous character, Murasaki Shikibu), secretly learned to read Chinese as a child and went on to write the first real novel in history, The Tale of Genji. To hide her unbecoming knowledge of Chinese and protect herself from gossip, she wrote in Kana, which allowed other women to use her epic work as an escape from the luxurious forced boredom of their lives.
With email, texting, social media, discussion forums, and online commenting, so much of our daily reading is an effort to engage with others. The 4000 or so editors in my busiest Facebook group can lure me into hours of distraction, with posts from the practical (“How do I respond to criticism from a client?”) to the ridiculous (“Check out these shoes that look like pencils!”). This engagement is compelling, even addictive. But we choose longer forms of reading to engage us, too. With the connection we build with characters and emotions in novels, we can experience grief (also known as a book hangover) when a good book ends, as book-grieving readers attested on a recent Reddit thread with more than 1000 posts.
This purpose is perhaps the most important and certainly the most dangerous. And it gets a post of its own.
A Word about Sources
My exploration of how reading began owes a debt to the authors of several books related to this subject. My questions first formed as I read Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christoper De Hamel. I then found essential information in A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading in the West edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, The Written World by Martin Puchner, and The Book by Keith Houston. The 2006 Education for All “Literacy for Life” Global Monitoring Report from UNESCO was fascinating and valuable, particularly chapter 8, “The Making of Literate Societies.”