What’s Reading For?

In the comments to my post “Is There a Right Age to Read a Book,” I noticed an odd thing. I’d written it mostly thinking about the comment that you shouldn’t read Jane Eyre until you’re thirty or Middlemarch until you’re forty, and I was thinking about reading pretty much entirely for pleasure. I was talking about spoiling the enjoyment of a book by reading it too early—or too late. In the comments though, people started talking about prescribing childhood reading and talking about books as if they were vitamins that you should take because they’re good for you. There were comments about the immorality of re-reading because it causes you to miss new books, and comments about learning morality from reading. It all became surprisingly Victorian.

I think this may have happened because I had started off discussing classics, and lots of people have these kinds of feelings about classics, as if they’re things you “ought to” read, educational reading, rather than things you read because you want to. And this led me to think about what I read for, and how that might be different from what some other people seem to read for.

It’s very simple: I read because it’s fun.

I do believe there are things everyone ought to do: big things like defending civilization, building the future, making art, and mending the world. I do try to do my share of those. And there are little chores everyone has to do like laundry and flossing and taking vitamins. Again, I do my best with this. There are things everyone has to do to earn money. Then there’s the rest of it, the things one does just for fun.

There’s certainly fun to be had in the defending civilization category, and one can certainly do one’s best to have fun in the doing laundry category. And it would be possible and reasonable to put reading into either of those places. Reading is one of the ways we learn about civilization and what makes it worth defending, it’s one of gthe ways we absorb culture and history and context. And I can see people who don’t actually enjoy reading putting it in the chore category, something just like flossing that isn’t enjoyable but which will lead to a good outcome. But I love reading. Reading is usually the most fun I can have at any given moment. And reading is so easy to fit in—going to see a play or an exhibition usually takes a whole evening, but I can read on the bus as I’m running errands, while I’m eating, in bed before sleep. Reading is awesome and flexible and fits around chores and earning money and building the future and whatever else I’m doing that day.

My attitude towards reading is entirely Epicurean—reading is pleasure and I pursue it purely because I like it.

And I feel exactly the same about reading whatever it is. If I’m reading Middlemarch I’m reading it in exactly the same spirit in which I am reading The Wise Man’s Fear. There’s no shred of feeling that one had value and the other doesn’t. Indeed, because I write these posts talking about books (which come into the category of “things I do to earn money”, though they are also fun) which are primarily about SF and fantasy, I sometimes feel as if I am goofing off if I read non-fiction or Victorian novels. Whatever I’m reading, I’m reading because it’s something I want to read, something I have selected either for the first time or for a re-read because it is appealing for one reason or another. I read something because I enjoy it or because I’m interested, because I’m getting all kinds of fun out of it. Re-reading A Fire Upon the Deep is one kind of fun. Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Victorian Germany is just one more alien world,

The only thing that’s different is when I’m reading for research. There are times I’ll drag through something just to get the facts in it. My attitude to non-fiction had changed over time. It used to be that there were only half a dozen non-fiction books I actually liked and which would be in my normal re-read rotation. Now there are all kinds of non-fiction writers whose work I love and whose new books I look forward to as eagerly as I do to fiction, and which I read for fun. If I’m reading for research, I’m usually reading something else at the same time for fun, and I won’t read the research book in bed. Research is generally “to make art” rather than for fun. Sometimes it manages to be both and that’s just great when it happens.

Because I’m not reading to educate myself or to absorb all the culture in the world, or even all the SF in the world, I feel no guilt at re-reading even if it does mean I’m “missing” a new book I could be reading instead. It’s true, I am missing it, but it’ll still be there later, and I’ve talked before about the way I’m more likely to act as if there aren’t enough books than if there are too many, so that when there are infinite and multiplying numbers of books to read it doesn’t intimidate me but makes me feel as if I’ve pulled a fast one on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I know I won’t live forever. But I read as if I will.

So in summation: I read because it is usually the most fun I can possibly have, I choose the things I read by how much I want to read them, and I read as if I will live forever. This is pretty much pure win from my point of view.

How about you?

Photo by Mo Riza used under Creative Commons license

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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