Why We Read the Books We Read

Or really - why I read the books that I read. Because we all have our own reasons to read and it’s more varied than there are pages in a book. How long is a piece of string?

This post is a self-justification of what I read because sometimes, I question the reasons of my reading. Even when I discuss this doubt to other readers and friends who are readers, they will give me good reasons and the benefits of reading — it widens your world-view, it makes you read and write better, it makes you in general more intelligent.

I have doubts about this. Without boasting, I’ve read more books than anyone I know personally, but in my 34th year, I don’t feel any broader in my world-view (in fact, I’ve grown more cynical), nor do I read and write any better or do I feel any smarter. In some ways I’ve reached a point where the more books I’ve read, the more stagnated I’ve become. Nonetheless I continue to read.

And there are a few reasons why. None of them really justify why I should continue reading, but I read nonetheless still.

Inertia

I will be the first to admit that I have an addictive personality to certain things. I’ve been addicted to reading since high school and I’ve never stopped reading since. I am also obsessed with numbers and achieving them, which you can argue is part of my profession as well.

To achieve this arbitrary goal gives a sense of satisfaction and achievement, no matter what sort of numbers you’re trying to achieve: the number of books read in a year, the number of app downloads for your shnazzy product, sales quota, number of stamps collected.

But it is this pursuit that gives some readers like me the high after completing a book, and perhaps this undermines the reading itself. When I hit this high of finishing a book, I will pick up another book immediately and start reading, instead of reflecting what I have read. Sometimes I go back to the few pages that I marked to re-read as I underline passages, but because you’re on a roll, you just keep reading.

We don’t question our habits oftentimes as we don’t question why the sky is blue, or why we breathe. We just do things because ultimately, they become a part of us. The inertia of reading is not as nefarious as the inertia of substance abuse. But the more I read, the more I need to justify my reading and therefore it is always important to question why we do things. Hence why you’re reading this article.

Knocking off a list

At some point in my life I wasn’t sure of what to read anymore. At that time, lists were the madness and people loved to create lists, and they still do. We love to compare our lists with others, so we can agree or disagree to the general populace most of whom we don’t even know personally. We want affirmations of our opinions. Lists also get the better of our competitive nature. At least for me, I want to be on the top of the mountain.

Knocking off books of a list is no better than reading superficially. Sometimes we read because a list tells us to and that we want to be one of those guys who say, “Yep I read 90 out of the 100 books on that list”. We don’t really say it, but this is why sites like ListChallenges have found some success, because we want to compare and compete.

But I am grateful for the books that exist in these lists because I found some of my favourite books from them. They are in these lists for a reason, and most have rightfully stood the test of time for good reason. I wouldn’t have picked up Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy or George Eliot otherwise. I learned more from reading these books than I’ve learned from five of years of high school.

Escapism

I lived in Cambodia for seven years where much of the entertainment is drinking, ping pong and the occasional volleyball. There wasn’t much opportunity for travel and Phnom Penh gets very small after a couple of years. I always have a need to explore and sometimes, there just isn’t much to explore. Right now I’m writing again because I am in an indefinite lockdown thanks to COVID-19 and I’ve ramped up my reading.

In the weekends I look forward to picking up or finishing a book, even if they are children’s fantasy books such as the Narnia books, or business books such as the Upstarts. Reading takes my mind off things and take me elsewhere. Reading is a dialogue between the reader and the book, the discourse which goes through your mind. It is mental sparring and you want to get better off the book, just as you’d like to beat your mate in a game of chess.

Without the company of my books, I would have gone crazy a bit early on in Cambodia, and I might have lost my rocks pretty early on in this lockdown. Finishing a book (and reading it along the way) gives me something to look forward to.

Getting winded

Have you ever ran full speed and your mate’s gone the other way and knocks you flat on your arse? You try to get up but you can’t cos he took the wind out of you. Maybe this isn’t the best analogy — but there are some passages that absolutely just hit you.

These passages may be resonant to your life at that point in time, and the truth in its delivery just absolutely stops you cold and put the book down, like old mate speartackling you the other way and take the wind out of you.

But I read because I want to find passages like these, that make you think twice and sometimes, spur you into action. The sentence might inspire you into action, but even if it only inspires, this is enough.

Sometimes it’s just the whole fucking book, like how White Fang pushed me to speak to strangers in a foreign language in a foreign country, how On the Road made me want to go across America and did on a greyhound, or how the Mill on the Floss really made me want to be kind to strangers again. I read to find books like these.

Sometimes the sentence is just fucking perfect. Some writers are full of this even in a single book. Just pick up anything by Virginia Woolf who’s an absolute fucking beast. A perfectly written sentence in a book will stun you, and in rare occasions, change you for the better.

Reading for reading’s sake

Every reader will understand it, yet to struggle to verbalise it. There is something intangible about reading that draws you in and won’t let you go. On occasions I pick up a book by my side and not pick it up maybe hours later because I know once I start reading I won’t be anchored to this reality anymore. Even bad books have this effect on you.

There is something about a bloke reading a book in a pub while other old blokes around him are watching the footy, and he looks pretty badass doing it. There is nothin more than a greater pleasure for me, and the pleasure that I miss most during this lockdown than sitting with a cuppa in a local joint with a book in my hands. And I’ve got respect for others who read anywhere — on trains, in cafes, in pubs, waiting for the vaccines, at home or anywhere.

One of my fondest memories as an exchange student in France was to listen to a girl reading a book out loud to her two mates while everybody was minding their own business. There is something about it, like belonging to a club of other readers, and being a fan of this simple pleasure. And really nothing quite like finding a mate who enjoy the same books as you do and talk about these books past its surfaces and the terrifying truths within them.

Because

There are many reasons indescribable which kept my nose in books.

I read because I read. Because I bloody like it. Because it keeps me sane. Because I like knocking off books in lists. And at times being blown away by them, completely taken by surprise. I read for the sake of getting winded, for the sake of finding a perfect fucking sentence that makes and/or breaks you. I read because I want to analyse, to find truths and to know us better, to know myself better.

So I guess I’ll keep reading.

A full time project manager who loves to read on the side. Connect with me to chat anything tech and lit.