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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