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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Why Are You Reading?

Reading is a funny thing.

You’d think we know what we meant when we said reading — but, not really. People approach reading with different definitions and expectations, that then shape dialogue and actions, and even then what a person means by “reading” may change mid-conversation.

For instance — is reading just a skill to be taught, with the only concern being mastering vocabulary, grammar, styles, figures of speech, etc.?

Does reading have to be productive? Does it have to teach a skill set to be viewed as valuable? Is its only point to teach the reader something, whether it’s business organization or finance or management? Or, for those who champion fiction and literature, is its point to teach empathy and knowledge and to make one a “better person,” whatever that means?

If a novel doesn’t help you get a job or contain lessons for keeping and succeeding in that job, is it not important? Or do novels only matter to make sure a person is “well read” with a knowledge of the “classics” so that people share a common set of stories?

Or is reading “just” something people do for fun, no more, no less, no matter how it gets dressed up?

My answer is simple, of course, and complex. (Oh, how pretentious that sounds!)

It’s simple in that reading is what the reader wants it to be. The needs of readers (heck, the needs of people) are various and fluctuate according to so many different factors. What I sought out as a reader when I was working 70-odd-hour workweeks (work which included much reading and analysis) was different than what I read at other times in my life. At times I have read for escape; at times, for understanding; sometimes to seek answers, sometimes to confirm beliefs.

But, honestly, most of the time I read for the very simple reason that I enjoy reading. It gives me pleasure; it makes me happy.

What I don’t like? People “shoulding” on my reading, whether it’s my reading choices (you know, it’s trash, it’s not literary, it’s teen, etc) or that I read.

I think the reading choices is pretty self-explanatory: there are people who believe that since they read for x reason, all people should read for x reason, so since my reading doesn’t reflect that, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. We’ve all seen variations of that argument around, most recently centering around 50 Shades of Grey.

How dare people — how dare women — read this trash when there are classics just waiting to make them better people!

Don’t you love the hubris of people, who assume they know so much about a person from their reading choices? And believe they can then loudly judge that person on those choices? Judgment: an easy way to feel better about myself is to judge another to be less than me. They don’t dress like me, listen to good music, wear the right clothes, have the right hair, read the right books. With a nice side of knowing nothing about the entirety of that person’s life, yet having this one window — this one book read — be the cause for dismissing the reader and their choices.

The “that I read” is a bit less obvious, and, I think, more tied to the belief (at least in this country) that people must be productive and show something for that productivity. Reading is viewed as “just” consuming a book because while I’m reading I’m just . . . reading. I’m not writing the next great novel, or mowing the lawn, or dusting; I’m not preparing a seminar, or revising an article, or arranging outreach visits. I’m not creating art. I’m not writing computer programs. I’m – just – reading.

“What a beautiful weekend, what did you do?” “Read a book.” Readers will smile and say, me, too, great reading weather. But others will look sideways, with the “so you wasted a great weather weekend reading” look. Thanks to the Internet, I have plenty of friends who “get it”, and think of the fun in things like Reading Alone Together. But, sadly, there are still plenty of people who give “the look,” the “didn’t you have something to do” look, the “must be nice to have so much free time” look.

The next time you see someone reading, and wonder, why aren’t they doing something — they are.

Updated to add:

Stop Telling Me What To Read, Please! at Clear Eyes, Full Shelves: “Just as how the books you read don’t define who you are as a human, the books you choose to read likewise do not make you more or less intelligent than the next person.”

You Can Like What You Like at Stacked: “I have a huge problem with the notion of a guilty pleasure. If something brings you pleasure, there should be no guilt associated with it. The reason people find themselves talking about guilty pleasures is because someone has taken their right to enjoyment from whatever it is that they like doing. It’s because someone has asserted themselves as an authority, as a person with privilege, and cast judgment upon an activity. No one has the right to tell you what you should or shouldn’t like.”

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About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is lizzy.burns@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Brandy says:

    “But others will look sideways, with the “so you wasted a great weather weekend reading” look.”
    This happens to me all the time.

    Great post. Most everyone I know comes to me for recommendations on MG novels for their kids and they’re grateful I can give them that. These same people are amused I read YA novels too. They usually have no idea I also read and love classics, historical non-fiction, theology, and regency era romance novels. It is frustrating at times.

    This is also a good reminder to those of us who talk up books to be careful not to fall into doing this. It is easy. I know I have done it before. I tend to get real snarky when I don’t like a book. (I have been trying to reign in this tendency but I’m not going to go back and delete posts where I have been.) It is usually toward the book itself, but I can see how some who love the book would read things like that as a criticism of them.

  2. Jennie says:

    “The next time you see someone reading, and wonder, why aren’t they doing something — they are.”

    Unless they’re *supposed* to be cleaning the bathroom. Which is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now, not reading Twitter and re-reading favorite scenes from favorite books (the hazards involved when dusting the book shelves.)

  3. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Brandy, I don’t like every book out there — and I have to remind myself, also, to snark about the book, not the readers.

    Jennie, sigh, the bathroom. So unfair that cleaning cannot be done just once, but has to happen every week.

  4. Melissa says:

    I’ve gotten that look where they look down at you for reading something (in my case teen books). It is also why some people get so self conscious when they are shopping for books or adults who browse in the teen section of bookstores or libraries. Some people are very judgmental. I have gotten to the point where I don’t care what they think, but still it is frustrating. I work in a library and so many people feel like they need to make excuses for what they read–I don’t think they realize that I am just happy they are here and reading. I don’t care what they select.

    I have also got the “don’t you have something more important to do look” too. Reading is important for many different reasons. Yeah, I probably have some housework that needs to be done, but books make me happy and to me, that is all that matters.

  5. Sarah says:

    “But, honestly, most of the time I read for the very simple reason that I enjoy reading. It gives me pleasure; it makes me happy.”

    Yes, yes!

    I am frequently irked by the notion that we’re seemingly supposed to have a higher, better reason for reading that that. Folks seem to think that we should be reading to be “challenged,” to be “educated,” to “become better humans.” And, honestly, I just want to read to read. I am often challenged or educated and occasionally a book will make me a better person, I suppose. But, really I just want to enjoy it.

  6. adrienne says:

    My piano teacher posed this question to me last year. He is also an avid reader and library user, had been asking himself why he read, and wanted to know why I read. For all the reading I do, I didn’t have a great answer, aside from that it seems to fill some need in me that I can’t really articulate. I know if I don’t spend time reading, I feel unsettled, but why? I don’t know. And I’m not at all the kind of person who reads methodically–like I don’t read all one genre or about one subject or even for one age level. I read all kinds of everything, just kind of bouncing along to whatever strikes me.

    We had a really interesting discussion about it back then, even though I am not sure I understand why I read any better than I did before. It’s just what I do.

  7. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Melissa: “books make me happy”. THIS. yes. And I wonder why that is a problem for some people? If 50 SHADES, for example, makes people happy — why does that bother people?

    Sarah, yes, yes, yes.

    Adrienne, “if I don’t spend time reading, I feel unsettled.” True for me, also!

  8. Maria says:

    It grows my world.

    The only thing I thought to indulge in today–do you know what an indulgence, deeper than chocolate or spending money, to use the only hours an infant is sleeping and the other children are in school?– is sitting and reading the book that just took me in its first pages when it arrived yesterday, happening to be Sigrid Undset’s Catherine of Sienna. It is the third book simultaneously open, though likely to be first finished. I’m back to the spatial reading mode, a book next to each nursing location.

    Liz, a great day to be 46 on this earth!

  9. Sondy says:

    I remember about one period of my life when I didn’t do much reading: For a month or so in college (when I was reading textbooks). I decided I don’t want to live like that! Reading gives me perspective on life, a wider vision. But mostly, that’s a way I love to spend my time. My life would feel much emptier without it.

  10. Sondy says:

    This made me think of something else. It’s so wonderful that we can meet other book lovers on the Internet now. I remember in 1998, living in Germany, I was so, so happy when I went to an SCBWI conference and met three other writers who were interested in writing middle grade fiction, like me. We stayed in touch via e-mail all these years. There was a time there when I felt very strange. Not only was my recreational activity of choice reading, it was reading children’s and YA books primarily. Now it’s so much easier to “meet” kindred spirits, so much easier to understand I’m not a complete freak and there are many others like me.

    Come to think of it, I’ve also learned lately I’m not the only math geek out there! Now, I may be the only math geek who also loves children’s books and loves to knit, but I definitely don’t feel alone in any of those interests!

  11. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Maria, HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I’m quite looking forward to 46 myself and I can’t wait for pictures of the new baby! Oh, I think another post entirely on reading multiple books and why. When I’ve done many at once, I find it works best to be very different so I can keep them seperate in my head.

    Sondy, yes, the Internet has been very positive for being able to meet kindred spirits — what did Anne used to say? Not kindred spirits. Something else. arhg. It’s going to bug me all night.

  12. Jess says:

    I’m another one that’s mostly in the “reading makes me happy” camp. But it makes me happy in a lot of ways, apart from the pleasure of a good story. I love broadening my experiences – reading about different parts of history but also about people who just think and feel differently than I do, people who’ve had other experiences and other ideas. I read for deeply satisfying emotional experiences and also for escapism and entertainment.

    Plus, there are a lot of things I read because I’m a children’s librarian. When I’ve checked out something that I feel like I *should* read, it can definitely make it less fun. Of course, I end up enjoying most of those books anyway, but it does occasionally feel overwhelming or chore-like to keep up with so many trends and genres – not to mention the classics I’ve missed. I HATE looking at a shelf trying to come up with more fantasy suggestions for a kid and realizing that I haven’t read even 10% of what’s there.

    Add me to the group of people that reads multiple books at once. I usually have at least one audiobook, at least one print book, and (lately) a download from NetGalley on my phone. Right now I’m up to 6 books.

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