Why do I read?
Proviso: added later to prevent people writing comments telling me I’m wrong … these are my views, my thoughts, my ideas, and the answers to my questions, about my reading – Okay?
So back to the question … And what a question! What has prompted it? I joined a book club last night – a case of third time lucky as I’d tried others – one at a local restaurant that enticed you to pay for a meal whilst discussing books – but with 30 or so diners hardly anyone except the ‘head’ table got to speak. A purely commercial venture. The second was an offshoot of a women’s discussion group that I belong. But this turned out to be a gossip fest rather than a genuine attempt to discuss books, and the rest of the group only read crime so I left, disappointed with both groups. Maybe this one would be different. And it was – but …
The group comprised of mainly sweet young things in their twenties and early thirties, at most, so I was at least 3 if not 4 decades older than the majority. And this is where my question starts to be relevant. As it was the first meeting there was no chosen book to discuss. So we spent the evening setting ground rules and structure. The ‘leader’ gave us a choice of two books for next month – one a bloody (in all senses of the word) crime novel whose title and author I’ve already forgotten, and The Catcher in the Rye. Oh! Right … boring then! As I said, I’m several decades older than the rest of the group so have read the second book years ago, with no desire to read it again. And the crime book – full of violence and abuse?
That is what sparked my question. You’ve probably forgotten what it is after my initial preamble. Why do we read? And here I’m talking about fiction, not factual, text books, you understand.
As a child (my views, my theories, you understand – not academically proven) I would say initially we read in order to learn to use words, and to stimulate the imagination, with a smidge of entertainment thrown in. As we get older – teens and twenties, I wonder if it is to explore new ideas, and, vicariously, new experiences. Later still, in my opinion and from my experience, it is more a form of escapism from the mundane aspects of life. Of course, all of these reasons cross the boundaries of age, both ways.
But for me, in my sixties, having done many things in my life, having seen and experienced all shades of life from dark to light, from depressing to uplifting, reading has taken on a whole new raison d’etre. Today, I read to expand and stimulate my imagination, and to authenticate and validate my spirituality (and for entertainment, of course). I do not want to read about violence and abuse, about misery and death. Firstly my career was as a social worker so I’ve seen plenty of real life misery and abuse, and do not want to read about it when I can choose other, more life-affirming books. Secondly, as someone on the downward slope towards whatever lies beyond the veil, I really do not want to read about violent and degrading torture and death. Neither, incidentally, do I want to read endless and mindless rom-coms involving thirty-year olds who think life is over if they aren’t in a loving relationship (dressed in designer footwear) by then, and where the older generation is included as comedic diversion, or are shown succumbing to daftness and worse, senility. Life is too short, and there are far too many books, to waste time reading about desolation and wretchedness, no matter how worthy; or pointless and shallow self-indulgence.
I want to read life affirming stories of love and challenge for heroines and heroes of any age, in any world – real or fantasy; stories with a touch of magic that leave me feeling good about this world; stories where the bigger picture demonstrates that we live on a beautiful planet surrounded mostly by lovely people, no matter what is happening in the small detail and dark corners, and that humanity (or its counterpart – elf, hobbit, dragon, vampire, alien) can rise above the darkness. These books don’t have to be great literature, and they don’t have to be adult books. I read children’s and young adult fiction, as well as books aimed at grown-ups. But the books have to be ultimately positive, beautifully written, atmospheric and life-affirming.
If you look at current best seller lists you might think I have a hard job finding books that appeal to me in my current life stage, and according to my strict criteria. Not at all, there are myriads of gems out there that are lyrical, descriptive and with really interesting story lines. Too many in fact, and I will never read all the ones that I want to read, I would need another whole lifetime, but then there would be, oh dear, a whole lot more newly written books as well.
Part of my problem or privilege depending on your perspective (after all I am reading prolifically in order to try to catch up, so maybe it is a good thing), is that I started late as a reader. We had few books in the house when I was a child. It was only with the opening of a library in the neighbourhood when I was about 10 that I discovered story books. Until then I had four books – a Hans Andersen fairy tale book (illustrated by Heath Robinson – not the one who designed weird machines, the other one – his brother, maybe?), a Grimm’s fairy tales (illustrated by Rackham), a book about dinosaurs, and an Enid Blyton Nature book full of environmental activities and stories about a young uncle who took his nephew and niece into the woods and countryside to explore nature (yes really! As a social worker I might have been pretty suspicious but as a young reader it was spell-binding). These books set the course of my life – a life-long love of fairy tales, mythology and fantasy ensued; also an interest in children’s illustrators. I have always had an interest in nature-study and for two decades taught environmental education to children through Wildlife Watch – and repeated many of those activities first discovered in the pages of that battered old green Enid Blyton hardback. And I still am fascinated by dinosaurs, and it was magical to see the first scenes of brachiosaurs in Jurassic Park – still my favourite film after Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit (all parts).
As for the afore mentioned Lord of the Rings/Hobbit – ask any of my friends – I am obsessed with the whole concept, and have been since 1966 when I was first introduced to the books by my English teacher after professing a love of reading as opposed to sport, when she found me hiding away in a classroom instead of being on the scary (far scarier than Doctor Who or orcs) hockey field. The books epitomize my criteria: poetic and lyrical language, and great structure, a good balance of action and description, a vast and vivid vision, a good storyline or ten, ultimately positive despite the apparent lack of hope and warfare, great role models (though slightly lacking in females other than Eowyn, Galadriel and Arwen) , and, oh yes, elves … magical! Plus Tolkien gave us a plethora of back-story mythology … bliss. I’m still exploring this underpinning mythology five decades on, and still just as interested. What other book can so inspire one person. And by the way, I’ve read the Silmarillion! Difficult, very difficult, but beautifully poetic and infinitely satisfying if you persevere.
So why do I read? For inspiration, to feed my mind, heart and soul, and to be entertained. Oh, and before you all start writing in comments disagreeing – remember – this is about me, no-one else: my ideas, my thoughts, my reasoning, and my answers.