Don't Just Say You Have Read Books, or Why I Read: A Personal Essay

I don’t know much about Epictetus and Stoic philosophy – in fact, that’s pretty much the biggest understatement I’ll likely make all year – but when I happened across this passage from Sharon Lebell’s translation of the philosopher’s “The Art of Living” I was still struck by it, and I was nodding my head along with it in rather fervent agreement. If you’re taking the time to read this blog then you’re probably already a big fan of books (and if so, I hope you find that little piece as satisfying as I did), but I think it’s still such an invaluable reminder to have with us. And for the people who don’t read so often it’s a perfect illustration of the importance of reading, and for the people who read for the sake of fulfilling some sort of pretension or cliché it’s a wake-up call. (And yes, there are people who identify with the latter out there. I’ve seen people – people who are passionate about books – behave in ways that makes me wonder if they really understand what books are about after all.)

I often think about why I read. It’s a question I’ve found posed to me in one form or another – people who don’t read, who don’t understand the allure of it, have tried to find ways to ask without being too blunt. I’m sure all bookworms have likely faced the question of ‘why’ a few times in their literary lives. I should add that I’m never offended by it – on the contrary, ask any book lover why she reads and you’ll likely get a rhapsody in response. For me, it’s about learning, about educating myself. It’s about being able to think deeper and write better. But it’s also about having the opportunity to escape, to travel through the power and astonishing visual of words. And it’s about pure entertainment. As a writer, as someone passionate about words, books allow me to connect with other devotees of the art, to see how other artists use the craft. And, I think perhaps more than anything else, a long time ago I discovered in books a sense of enrichment more powerful than anything I’ve felt before. Through every book, any book – not just the classics, or the popular ones, or the ones that have been lauded with awards – I’ve grown, and my ideas have grown, and the way I see the world has evolved. It’s a very powerful feeling, and one that gains power upon reflection. When I finish a book it doesn’t become unimportant to me, or useless in any way, because every book is a journey and every book is, in some way, a piece of my life, maybe even a piece of my character.

And when I say that I read to educate myself that doesn’t mean I stock up on those monstrously difficult books that will give me the opportunity to add more obscure words to my “highbrow vocabulary” arsenal. I like books that challenge me to understand language, to understand writing, but the learning goes beyond that. I read to educate myself about my own mind, about other personalities, and about the perplexing, compelling world around me. As a result I think reading has affected the way I live, the way I consider just about everything I come across in life, the way I treat others, and even the way I see myself. I try, very much, to live what books have taught me – and to live the joy they’ve brought to me. If someone said, based on my conversation or behavior or anything else, “She seems like a girl who reads” then I’ll feel like I’m doing something right, because I’m letting the books I’ve read work through me. I do read for the words, too. Amazingly enough, I feel like reading has made me a better writer and at the same time writing has made me a better reader. It’s a marvelous arrangement; I’m quite mesmerized by it, really.

So as a point of discussion, or just for the pure fun of talking about something we all love so much, let me know: why do you read?