Apparently I’m on this quest to analyze everything I do. The next post will be titled “Why I Breathe.” Won’t that be profound?
But I got to thinking about the different reasons for reading. I see two extremes in the approach to reading.
The first extreme is to read for purely intellectual reasons. Enter Eustace Scrubb who read books with “pictures of grain elevators or fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools,” as C.S. Lewis said. Eustace was the kind of kid who made himself so dreadfully snobbish everyone who met him had a longing to punch him, or at least I imagine that would be case. Though I can imagine what it would be like to meet Eustace, his problem was that he had no imagination. His life was completely filled with trains and model schools. Because he was so self-centered, the purpose of his reading was to take information. There was no effort to sympathize, to reach out and connect with all the other people in this vast world; for Eustace everything existed only to serve him. C.S. Lewis illustrated this mental, emotional, and spiritual isolation when Eustace turned into a dragon. It wasn’t until this point that he realized what it is like to be lonely. And I will point out that he became a dragon because he hadn’t read the right sort of books which would have taught him that dragon lairs are not safe places to fall asleep. Anyways…reading should engage not only the mind but also the emotions. We are part of this world, we are not mere spectators, we shouldn’t just coldly observe the sorrow, and fear, and joy of those around us, we should participate in it and even sacrifice our own emotional equanimity to empathize with our fellow sojourners through this place.
The other extreme is to read with not rational discernment or judgement but as a pure emotional escape from “real life.” I think this is the most present danger in our times, as shown by the popularity of books like Twilight. Wanting to be entertained does not justify reading trash, either in the sense of literary quality or content, or both. And there are plenty of books out there that are completely clean and harmless, but, I’m afraid to say, very brainless. If your brain is exhausted and you are reading to “zone out” just as you would watch TV, then you might as well read clean entertainment rather than something with objectionable content. I have my weaknesses, like Agatha Christie, but if I were to read only those kinds of books my mind would stagnate.
So, you might be wondering…what kind of books do I like reading? If I don’t read to absorb information or to be amused, why do I read?
To me, reading a book is a journey. I want to be a different person when I finish the book. I want it to change me. It may do that in different ways.
Some of the most profound books I’ve read were ones that make me understand myself better, books that gave words to all the emotions and thoughts I have had. Books that make me say, “ah, yes, that is me.” And it is a moment of self-affirmation, in a sense, to know that I am not the only one to have ever experienced this. It makes the loneliness fade away, for suddenly there is a world that can identify with who I am.
Some books help me understand other people better. To be privy to another person’s thoughts and life can help me empathize with people I know who may be in a similar situation. When someone is angry, it may be because they are afraid, or because they are angry at themselves or something completely unrelated to the apparent object of their anger. This is something I’ve learned from reading books. It creates a bond with the world because it makes me better at empathizing and understanding others.
Some books challenge my assumptions about world. These books rouse me from apathy and make me realize there isn’t a moment to spare in this life, for there is so much to learn and do and understand and become. There is no room or time for being smugly comfortable in our white-washed houses while people die and suffer and hurt. There is no time to enjoy ourselves while time is inexorably inching towards that great Judgement Day when we shall all be accountable for what we have done.
Some books disturb me and call me to self-examination, for if someone else can be deluded and fooled, then I can certainly be misled, either by myself or others. We are weak and easily led astray, often with dreadful consequences.
Some books comfort me because they remind me that though the night be dark, joy will come in the morning. This life is not a mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is not some trap of existential despair and meaninglessness. It is not a cycle of all the centuries that have come before, the world simply repeating itself for infinity, each person a random and helpless cog in this great movement of time. We have purpose, we have a Creator, who though He may not be safe, He is good, and nothing will happen but by His decree, and despite all that might happen, on that final day, all will be made right again.
Some books exhaust me, they leave me emotionally drained, and worn out from all that it has done to me. But somehow, after I slowly regain myself, I am a better person, a stronger person, for what I have been through.
That is why I read. And you see, it isn’t just a way to escape, it is a way to make sense of the world. So it isn’t an option, it isn’t a luxury, it is the way I am.