What is reading for?

Why read? Or to paraphrase the Edwin Starr song, Reading: What is it good for?

I have finally read Jonathan Franzen’s (in)famous “Harper’s essay” (“Perchance To Dream”, Harper’s Magazine, April 1996). After reading two very different responses to this piece in the pages of that same magazine over the past two years, it is strangely surreal to be finally holding and reading the words that started it all. It is also more than a bit anti-climatic.

I must confess that I am above all puzzled. What, I ask, is all the fuss about? Perhaps it is symptomatic of my less-nuanced abilities as a reader, but when I read Franzen’s essay I see a writer’s (rambling and pretentious) exploration of his own self-doubt as a writer, and how he found some light for himself when he finally stopped be quite so pretentious about what he expected contemporary fiction in general and his own output in particular to do and be and mean. The subsequent vortex of polemic surrounding this particular essay is inscrutable to me, and seems to have to do with a lot of things that are beyond the scope of Franzen’s essay, and certainly of mine.

But enough pretending that I am capable of a coherent critical response to any of the above. My skills on this front are none improved by nearly a decade of disuse. Let me rather take this as a jumping-off place, and go my own subjective rhetorical way with it.

Why read? Or to keep it close to the vest, why do I read? Do I seek consolation, or knowledge, or belonging, or what? Do I seek enjoyment or pleasure, or do I do it out of some sense of duty, obligation, or something else? Do I expect betterment, or connection to a realm of import outside my usual sphere of contact? Why?

(I produce questions like pus; these queries just ooze out of me as from a filthy wound. I squeeze them out on the page with the ease of a hæmorrhage. The answers come to me much less easily, when I can find them at all.)

I am a reader, and I have been for many years now. (As I commence my thirtieth year I suddenly feel comfortable referring to my years as “many” without irony.) My pace of consumption is only a fraction of what it was in my indolent youth, but I am finally convalescing from a long period of spiritual malaise and my appetite for the written word grows daily. But reading, especially fiction, has formed an essential foundation to my education and the way I experience of the world for always, and it will likely remain so for always as well.

In my adolescence I concocted an unwieldy and pompous aphorism: “Music, the only reality. Literature, the only escape.” Did I actually believe this at the time? Probably to some extent. (Yes, I really was that pretentious.) But that little twit is largely gone now, and such maxims do not linger in my life today. When I actually read fiction (which is woefully seldom) it is firstly for enjoyment: I enjoy the story, the characters, the craft. I will ooh and ahh over a smart turn of phrase or a well-flown passage of imagery. I am far from immune to the pleasure of the text, and the taste of delicious language is one I love to savour on my tongue.

But delicious language for its own sake can quickly overwhelm my (quite possibly provincial) sensibilities. Perhaps this makes me a petty bourgeois philistine, but clever prose that confuses more than it elucidates is wasted on me. I simply lack the mental energy necessary to wrestle my way through such textual obscurantism. I can remember as a college sophomore I longed to tackle Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, but never actually made any move to attempt the feat. I very much doubt that I ever will, and I don’t feel that my life will be at all diminished by my missing the experience.

I do not know that any of the above really ties together, nor if it is at all germane to Franzen’s essay and the subsequent furore. I cannot really say whether or not reading has a purpose in any universal sense. I can only proclaim with the certainty of subjectivity that I read, and that I do so because I enjoy it, because I want to find things out about the world I live and how people other than myself have lived in and experienced and reacted to and thought about that world. Their lives — be they real or imagined — are to me bits of an atlas of the shared human experience, and the more I gather together and consume the closer I am to the nearly-impossible task of assembling a comprehensive map. And I will always want to read about that.

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