Why Read?

This is a response to these two articles, both of which discuss, like last week’s post, the benefit and/or purpose of reading.

First of all, I much prefer Parks’s article because it automatically assumes that we read for a purpose, whatever that purpose may be. However, it seems to me that Parks end up preferring older books, giving unsatisfactory reasons as to the value of reading contemporary literature. For me, as a writer, I have to believe that new books have value. Each generation deserves to have a culture of their own, and literature is a hugely important part of that culture. Of course it’s important to read classics because they give us a glimpse into a past society, and that’s exactly why new books should be read and written—future Americans should be able to look back on us and how we lived.

Siegel’s article is, to put it gently, infuriating. Siegel talks about a study that shows that reading literature sharply increases empathy. You would think this is a good thing, but Siegel seems to disagree, saying that empathy is also the mark of sociopaths. Are you serious? The basis of Siegel’s argument is that he doesn’t want literature to serve a measurable purpose—it should be an accepted leisure activity. My question: why can’t it be both? Why can’t some relaxing activity also affect a positive change in those who undertake it?

Why Reading Matters

This post is a response to Simon Hay’s “Why Read Reading Lolita? Teaching Critical Thinking in a Culture of Choice.”

I’m a reader. I come from a family full of books; my father was a bookseller and rare manuscript hunter by trade, and my mom spent much of her career as an antique dealer shelving gorgeous, leather-bound classics. I grew up in a house filled to the stuffing with books, so much so that a contractor once told us our attic was in danger of caving in on the rest of the house due to the many stocked bookshelves we had. I’ve never once asked myself why I read. At the danger of sounding trite, asking why I read is akin to asking why I breathe. I’ve never had a choice—the act gives me life.

For Hay, it seems this would not be a satisfactory answer. Asking a group of literature students why they study what they do is hard, especially when Hay frames the question in such a way that giving an “acceptable” answer is near impossible. When students answer that reading literature gives us a glimpse into past lives, he believes they are calling English studies History-lite. The same can be said for each answer a would-be student could give Hay, which to me isn’t fair. Students of literature, in my experiences, come home when they study books. Books are a safe place—a place that makes sense amidst the ample chaos found in the world. Honest students of literature study their discipline because they simply have no other choice—they are held delightfully, helplessly captive by the allure of escape, understanding, and emotional connection that reading offers.

In the end, Hay concedes that it is the choice to study, not the discipline being studied, that matters. As far as I’m concerned, if it matters to you, it’s worth pursuing. If you are called to read, then read, even if someone has the gall to ask why.