I was that kid with my face in a book at most family functions. Of course, I was often the youngest person present at said functions, so while the adults talked about things that were over my head, I was in the next room reading about Hogwarts or Narnia or cats (yes, it started pre-Internet). I wish it wasn’t considered rude to do that as an adult . . . sigh . . .
I consider myself an avid reader, though in some sick twist of irony, I’m usually too busy reading for school to read for pleasure. But I squeeze in some need-some-sanity reading on the weekends and lots of it over Christmas and summer break.
Sometimes I like to reflect on why I read. Surely my reasons resonate with many other readers, but to those who may not see the value in pleasure reading, I hope my thoughts open your eyes and minds to the purely unscientific benefits of reading that you may not have considered before.
Reason #1: To get in someone else’s head/life for a while
In short: escapism. Sometimes I just get tired of listening to myself, you know? I get sick of listening to my head complain about my [good] life, and as I am a worry wart, you can imagine how exhausting that can be.
Escapism doesn’t just work for happy stories. Even if you would never in a million years trade your life with one of the characters you’re reading about, reading gives you a safe place in which to explore what-ifs: what it would be like to live like that character without actually having to. Escapism is a reason I especially enjoy fantasy and sci-fi—I’m exploring the what-ifs of another world.
Reason #2: To get new ideas and perspectives
Functionally, humans read to obtain information; but information isn’t always boring facts and data. Ideas and perspectives are the essence of what makes us human. When we read, we don’t always agree with the ideas and perspectives presented, but learning and understanding those perspectives makes us more empathetic. When we’re empathetic, we make wiser, more fair decisions.
Reason #3: To become a better writer
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always loved stories and wanted to create my own. I’m still working [not so diligently :/] on my author aspirations, but I don’t make nearly enough time to write as I should. But all the while, I’ve loved reading and thinking up stories. And I think the more I read, the better I write.
That goes two ways: reading increases my vocabulary and wordsmithing, and reading also makes me a better storyteller. Editing does the same. When I read, whether for leisure or while editing, I see good and bad techniques other writers use, and I learn from them.
For those who can’t imagine writing for “pleasure,” this reason may not seem as important to you. But being a good writer is an important skill you will use all your life, no matter what your profession or calling. You may not be concerned about building a fantasy world, but knowing how to set up a compelling narrative is just as important to reporting your scientific research as it is to writing a novel. And, if nothing else, your colleagues will be so thankful that you can at least craft a coherent email.
Many writers say, and I second it, that the first step to becoming a skilled writer is to read, especially to read the types of things you’ll be writing.
Reason #4: To become a better thinker
Me, I read lots of blogs and articles discussing hot-button topics. But I don’t generally blog or post about them myself—in fact, I seldom make public commentary on such things. I have lots of reasons for that, and you can think what you like about me because of it. (My husband would tell you I’m really not quiet on these things, heh.) But even though I’m not saying much about hot-button topics, I’m thinking about them—a lot. As many wise people throughout millennia have said, the first step to understanding is listening.
And that’s what I’m doing when I read—I’m listening to other ideas and perspectives, considering their points, checking their sources, playing devil’s advocate, identifying logical fallacies, reading between the lines, and looking at broader applications and implications.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to read anything intellectual or high-brow to get something valuable. Glimpses of life and the world can be found in novels that seem purely to entertain. For example, one popular fiction genre right now, dystopia/post-apocalypse, is certainly entertaining (especially as these books are made into movies) but also offers a lot to think about in terms of government, the environment, and society.
Reading can make you a better thinker even through the [sometimes] simple process of identifying why you liked a book (or movie) or why you didn’t. That’s an exercise I recommend to anyone who doesn’t already do that kind of analysis: why did you like that book or movie? What about your favorite characters was so appealing? What are their weaknesses, and what could those weaknesses stem from? What do their choices say about who they are or about the society they live in?
So yeah—read. Seriously. I guarantee that when you find your niche—that topic, time period, genre, medium, etc. that speaks to you—you’ll find that reading really is fun. And lest I keep sounding like a faded ‘90s poster hanging in an elementary school library, I’ll leave you with the words of Jon Stewart: