Reading for all the wrong reasons

March 11, 2009

I’ve been trying to read more fiction lately, and to stretch myself to read a little more widely, outside of the “good” books I usually feel drawn toward. (I just finished a not-nearly-as-bad-as-I-expected-it-to-be Nora Roberts.)

As I spend more time reading this unfamiliar stuff, I find myself rethinking why it is that I like to read, what value it gives me. And since I want to be a librarian, what good am I doing the world by recommending books to people?

It’s a complicated and interesting problem, and I believe there’s a lot more to it than “reading is good for you” or even “reading good books is good for you.” I’m working on a longer post considering this question, but this afternoon I stumbled across a paragraph that makes a few steps toward answering it.

This is from Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, which I discovered the other day on my library’s new books shelf (oddly, since it was written in 2005). She is considering the “compulsive habit of reading” that she and most other novelists were guilty of as children:

Undoubtedly, we were reading for all the wrong reasons—escape, pleasure, avoidance of responsibilities and human contact. We were reading because it was easy and fun and because we were unsupervised. We were reading to find companions more congenial than those around us. We wanted to fill our heads with nonsense and tune out practical considerations. We were not, most likely, athletic or useful sorts of children. We were reluctant to help around the house or to go outside and play. We did not have very good manners, because in numerous ways to be cited later, reading books is deleterious to good manners. We did not have good sleep habits, because if we had, we would not have read under the bedcovers with a flashlight, or held the book up to the moon that shone through the window, and ruined our eyes. We were reading because we had two lives, an inner life and an outer life, and they were equally important to us and equally vivid.

This seems like a pretty good starting point for some of the reasons why we (not just novelists) read. I’m still working on articulating why it matters. More to come, I hope, on this question. I know I’ll be thinking about it.

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2 Responses to “Reading for all the wrong reasons”

  1. Destinee Says:

    A while ago I picked up a book called _The Solitary Vice: Against Reading_ by Mikita Brottman. I never actually sat down and read the whole thing, but I skimmed it to get the gist, which was something like, “Reading is great, but too much of it can be damaging.” The part that rang most true for me was that too much reading can cause “Severe Disappointment with Reality.”

  2. Bo Says:

    Heh. Actually, I think I tend to have the opposite reaction–but I tend to read depressing books whose characters lead crummier lives than mine.

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