Feb 21 2013 11:00am

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.

Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Hi Jo.

For me, in the end, reading is pleasure. I enjoy genre reading, historical reading, and many other kinds of reading because I like to do it. I like to learn. I like to be transported to worlds and meeting fascinating characters.

If I don't like the book or subject then there is trouble; if its not enjoyable to read, then there is trouble. I don't want to read it. I got in trouble in 6th grade that way in a "Reading" class, of all things. I disliked the books we were assigned, you see...
James Hogan
2. Sonofthunder
I like this post, Jo.

As I was reading your opening and pondering your opening question, "What's Reading For?", I just thought to myself I read because I like to!

And that's really as simple as it is for me. I do read some educational fare and non-fiction and again, it's because there are things I'm interested in learning. But primarily, when I picked Name of the Wind off my shelf last night, it was because it was what I was in the mood for and felt like reading. And there you go.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
Put me in the reading is fun column. I pick out what I want to read at the moment whether it is new or a reread. It is rare that even when researching someting will I go to far down an uninteresting path (it helps that I find a large number of things interesting).
A world without reading would be drab indeed, to me.
Dr. Cox
4. Dr. Cox
Same here! I read so much I was voted "Most Studious" as a highschool senior even tho' I didn't have the best grades. My response was "I gotta entertain my brain somehow!"
In college and grad school I'd also read ahead just to be reading (Jane Eyre, for example, as I think I mentioned in comments on your age-appropriate reading post . . . need to look back at the comments :)).
I am also a rereader, even of non-fiction, even of biographies and autobiographies . . . Felicity Kendal's autobiography White Cargo is a go-to for a reread, as well as Tolkien's collected letters.
I even reread mysteries, lol :).
Dr. Cox
5. Mr. W.
I have this strange quandry with reading in my classroom. I teach high school sophomores and freshmen, and it is so very clear that they have been "taught" to hate reading (in general; there are a few who love it). This makes me literally, physically sick sometimes to think that these kids have been robbed of a love for reading because they were "forced" to read dry, boring, or unsuitable texts from so young an age.

I was homeschooled, so I was fortunate in being able to choose whatever I wanted to read. My parents gave me books in "high school" that they thought any good citizen needed to read, but I had been able to cultivate such a burning love of reading that these books did not feel burdensome. Ayn Rand, George Orwell, etc. Authors that my students winge about having to read.

One of the bright spots in reading this year was reading Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as a class. Students were enthralled. Reluctant readers begged to take it home to be able to finish it. One even got his first library card in order to get it and finish it. I struggle with trying to instill in them a love of reading over against an appreciation for the canon. The same skills can be taught using contemporary YA fiction as can be taught with Dracula or Frankenstein. But it feels "naughty" to ignore To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men in favor of books that I believe spur my students to looking at reading and books as good things.
S Cooper
6. SPC
Another vote for reading for fun, but I'll add a second reason related to reading for research. I will read one thing in order to understand others - I'm working my way through Three Men in a Boat, even through it's not really holding my focus, in order to better appreciate To Say Nothing of the Dog. I picked up all kinds of things to try to get The Number of the Beast. I read Twilight, against my better judgement, to get the references everybody else makes to it. I'd call it reading for cultural literacy, although, if you boil it down, it comes back to pleasure, because I really just like understanding jokes and references.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
SPC: I'll sort of do that too. I read half a ton of Chick Lit last summer because I kept hearing people using the term and wanted to know what it was doing as a genre, what fears it was addressing in Abraham's terminology, how it was different from genre romance. It wasn't exactly research because it wasn't research directed at anything, but it also sort of was. I wouldn't have kept doing it if it wasn't sort of fun, but I stopped when I could see the commonality and had a working definition. I haven't read Twilight but if I did that's exactly why I would, so that I could better contribute to the conversation. I'm not really in the conversation about vampires so that's OK, but I do see the conversation generally as a valuable thing.

Thanks for that, that has made me think.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
8. spinfuzz
Reading is most definitely for pleasure. But I suppose what you enjoy to a large extent decides on what you read and how you enjoy it. Luckily for me, I enjoy language, both in the constructed language sense of fantasy or sci-fi worlds and just the control of the English language by authors. So my tastes tend to span many genres. Anything that shows a value for the old structures of storytelling, a la the Monomyth, is alright in my book as well.
David Levinson
9. DemetriosX
I suppose you could say I come down on the side of reading is for pleasure. But it would be a bit like saying breathing is for pleasure. For me, reading is such an absolute need that I get twitchy if I don't have a chance to read something during the day and have problems sleeping if I don't read something before turning out the light. Fiction, non-fiction (as long as the subject matter is at least marginally interesting), the back of a cereal box if necessary.
Nick S
10. kukkurovaca
Re: books as vitamins, I do think books can be good for you, and I do think they can be more efficacious at certain times. I really, really wish that I had discovered Bujold's Vorkosigan books when I was a kid, for example. I impressed hard on certain writers' versions of virtue, love, family, and heroism, and while I wouldn't repudiate the things I read then, I wish that Miles, Mark, Cordelia, Aral, and co. had been in the mix as well. I suspect I'd be at least a marginally happier person now.
Dr. Cox
11. Lalo
I read for one of two reasons: for pleasure (because reading is my escape and my stress relief) or for knowledge (because I learn best while reading).

My pleasure reading is whatever catches my fancy--fantasy most often (in all its many forms), but if it has a strong hook I'll read it no matter what the genre. This is further sub-divided into 'pleasure reading for myself' and 'pleasure reading to discuss', though the two categories almost always overlap.

I read for fun because books don't put expectations on me. They don't snipe at me if I'm late getting dinner done or grump at me if I have to stop for a while because I'm too tired. They welcome me back no matter how long its been and are comforting in a way my friends don't understand. They've been the only absolute in my entire life and I don't expect that to change.

Reading for Knowledge is trickier. In college I'll read for knowledge--I'm studying to be a paralegal so all we really do is read caselaw and statutes and such and interpret it. Or I'll read analytical essays on shows/books/movies/mythology because I want to understand more than anything else.

In primary and secondary school I read what they put in front of me because I had to--of the 78 books I read from 2nd to 12th grade (purely for class related reasons) I went on to enjoy 7 of them independently years later, 3 of them I don't enjoy, but I will re-read because they fascinate me and 5 were books I already enjoyed previous to needing to read them for class.

That's still 63 books I will never likely read again--24 of which are considered 'classics' in literature and that I have tried to re-read and failed because I don't find them interesting enough for 'pleasure' reading.

Right now reading for knowledge, outside of college, is all about understanding something. I want to understand the motivation for a director behind his choices for a movie. I want to understand why an artist chose this color over that. I want to understand the psycology behind why certain tropes are more often given center stage in a show or book.

Some things, like my interest in mythology, is a life-spanning interest with different reasons being met at different times (I'm currently working through Sumarian mythology, whereas a few years ago it was Mesoamerican) and only specific books being revisited as they relate to the current interest.

This isn't really pleasure reading--yes I'm not reading it for any specific obligation, but I'm reading it for a specific reason and once that reason has been met, I'll not likely go back to those books.
Dr. Cox
12. samann1121
I like this quite a bit. A few years ago I started writing short "book reviews" (some of them are more like reflections) for every book I read and publishing them as Facebook notes. I do this purely for fun -- it helps me focus while I read, it helps me think about what I'm reading, and I like sharing what I read with my friends and having discussions with people who have read the same books.

But what I've noticed through doing this is that there are no entirely vacuous books. Even the least informative, least innovative, most low-brow things I've read have made me think about things from a new perspective, have led to more reading or research, or have serendipidously tied in to something else that's been going on in my life. I think if you're open to it, deep thoughts can result from *any* reading.
Dr. Cox
13. XenaCatolica
I think I'm in the pleasure camp, but I suspect many of us mean different things by pleasure. Great prose is a pleasure, and a common one among us former-English-major/teacher types. Suprise is a different pleasure. I'd have to say great story-telling is a pleasure that increases with rereading, and re-watching. Sorry if it's heresy to mention in a book post, but for me at least, a terrific (rewatchable) show is exactly the same pleasure as a good book, although there are a LOT fewer of them.

But the pleasure of reading is also the pleasure of meeting another mind. The best books are the ones where I say "I couldn't have thought of that! And I wish I had!" It's a sad fact I'll probably never have lunch with you or Neil Gaiman or (fill-in-the blank), but a good story is a bulwark against loneliness. Boredom is only loneliness pushing sharp sticks through the mind rather than the heart.

And I loved "Among Others". Thank you very much.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Lalo: Very interesting comment. Stress relief is a good one. And I'd classify your mythologicalreading as research. I think it works if I think that research doesn'thave to be for anything, it can be just for general mind-furnishing.

Samann1121: That's because the constant there is you. The books provide the stimulation, you provide the thoughts. And that's another great comment.
Vicki Rosenzweig
15. vicki
I like "I know I won’t live forever. But I read as if I will."

Mostly I read for pleasure. Sometimes I read for distraction (which is a different thing, though I'm not sure whether the books I choose are different then).

Sometimes I read for information. It feels like work if it's not information that actually interests me (this category includes things like the workings of a computer program I will need to use for the next three months). There's an edge case there, of things that I hardly count as reading, though there's no other word for what I'm doing: the current weather report, or posters on the subway about scheduled service changes, or the ads I read in passing because I don't know how not to.
Chris Hawks
16. SaltManZ
Because it's there. :)

- - - - -

It's feels weird to say I read for "fun" or "pleasure", since it's not necessarily fun or pleasing when a story fills me with outright terror, or makes me weep (manly) tears in despair or even relief. However,the pleasure is, I think, in the prose and/or story that can move me to such emotions. There's something almost magical about the fact that tiny scratchings on paper can provoke such an emotional response, or open my mind to new worlds or ideas or ways at looking at our own world. That, I think, is the real reason I read.
Dr. Cox
17. PhoenixFalls
I read for pleasure, and I read for research, and like SPC@6 I also read some things purely so that I can talk about them with others. But there are a couple other reasons I read: sometimes I read something I don't anticipate enjoying and which has no functional purpose (like research or conversation) because I anticipate it will be difficult for me to read -- I view reading as a skill that has to be developed like many others, and so sometimes I'll read something I've heard is incredibly experimental in some way just to see if I can get through it and get something out of it.

And sometimes I read something out of pure stubbornness, because I'm a completist with things -- so, for example, I have been getting less and less enjoyment out of each installment of Gail Carriger's Soulless series, but I'm still going to read Timeless because it's the end of it. (I know there's a spin-off series. My stubbornness doesn't extend that far.) No purpose as far as research, conversation, or even skill-development, and I'm not likely to enjoy it, but at the end I'll have the satisfaction of knowing I saw the series to its close. Or at least, I won't have the dissatisfaction of knowing that I *didn't* see the series to its close. :)
Dr. Cox
18. lampwick
Sometimes one reason I'll read fiction is to learn more about things like history (in historical fiction or time travel fiction) or biology or astronomy or physics (in science fiction). The information is presented in an entertaining way, and in a way my brain is more likely to grasp -- and, as Jo Walton said, it's fun. I've learned a lot over the years from reading fiction. (That said, yes, I do know that authors' research can sometimes be faulty.)
Dr. Cox
19. Emily H.
I would say I read for pleasure, but with plenty of caveats -- I start many books in the hopes that I'll enjoy them, and finish them only because I'm hoping they'll redeem themselves in the last 50 pages, or because I can't stand to leave loose ends untied.

I am part of a library committee that reads and evaluates a large number of books, so it's often unpredictable whether a book that I start as "homework" will turn into a book that I love -- but they do, generally, start out as homework.

I love to read but it feels like work in a way that watching TV or surfing the internet doesn't -- I generally enjoy it more, but it takes time to get into a book and warm up to the voices, and it takes concentration, and it makes my brain work hard, and it is rare to find a book that delights me. (Oddly, my standards are much lower for TV -- I'll watch all kind of stuff just to pass the time, but I don't like reading books that are just time-passers.)
Kartik Nagar
20. BloodRaven
I read because it is fun and because it provides experiences (although secondary) which I will never have in my real life. But sometimes, I feel guilty because whenever I get some free time, I will open a book and start reading. Reading is a largely passive activity which doesn't really require any creative intervention or active thinking on the part of the reader. I look at other hobbies like playing sports, visiting places or some creative activity (like drawing) or even plain gossiping, and all these activities require some active contribution from the individuals involved in them. We readers just devour the creative work of other people.

Of course, this is only the case when you read for fun, and that is why sometimes, I feel obliged to read to gain knowledge, and that reading all the time for fun is not a great idea. Then, there is also this feeling that other activities have better payoff than reading. For example, playing sports improves your health, creative activities develop your skills, while reading doesn't seem to have such payoffs. Anyways, that doesn't really stop me from reading, but it does make it a guilty pleasure. Wonder if anyone else has such feelings?
Dr. Cox
21. N. Mamatas
Is anyone, especially on a blog dedicated to genre fiction, really not going to say, "Well, I read for pleasure"?
Dr. Cox
22. PhoenixFalls
I actually feel exactly the opposite -- reading is extremely active for me (intellectually, obviously, and physically when I read on the treadmill, lol). At a bare minimum, I am engaged in picturing what's happening; usually I am also engaged in anticipating where the story might go, and examining what response the author is provoking in me, and analyzing how the author is achieving that response.

And I'm pretty sure studies have shown that reading builds empathy in young people and helps stave off mental decline in old age.*

Which is to say nope! No guilt whatsoever. I read for my health! :D

*Or at least, strictly speaking, studies have shown that young people who read are more empathic and old people who read show fewer symptoms of mental decline. It bugs me when people mix up correlation and causation, so I shouldn't do it here.
Dr. Cox
23. tigeraid
I'd like to THINK I read for purpose of "culture," to be smarter, to gain knowledge, and I do, sometimes. I read a fair bit of non-fiction. That's not to say gaining that knowledge isn't pleasurable though.
lake sidey
24. lakesidey
I read for pleasure, and you pretty much said what I never found the words to. Thanks! As always, you make so much sense...

Dr. Cox
25. Lalo
@bluejo - research yeah its basically that. I like tying things together or seeing where plot threads came from.

@N. Mamatas - this isn't strictly true. 'Reading for pleasure/fun' and 'enjoying reading' are two different things - I love reading, but put something I don't like in front of me and even though I'm reading it its not a pleasurable or fun experience.

Some bloggers read outside their comfort genres--whatever they are--specifically because they want to have that 'I don't read this normally' vibe and not have preconceptions.

For every 20 or so fantasy books I read, I try to read a historical novel because its something different. When I then blog about that book I'm careful to mention I'm not normally a reader of Historical Fiction, but this is what I enjoyed and this is what I didn't enjoy. My fantasy reviews by contrast are filled with 'I really loved how so and so did this and it reminded me of this, but was a twist on this'. More comparative.
Dr. Cox
26. LaurenJ
I also read predominantly for pleasure, though I've also been known to read things that are in conversation either in the general society or in some specific context: mark me down as one more person who read Twilight in order to understand that whole thing. I will also read to be informed, though I count being informed as a type of pleasure, but if the nonfiction isn't enjoyable on some level besides just offering me facts, I'll generally seek out some other book that might offer the same information in a better way.

I read widely anyway, and don't really have any genre/topic dislikes, but as a library science student, sometimes I will purposefully make an effort to read something I'm not actually that interested in: if it's reasonably popular, I might still be asked to work with it in some capacity, and I need to be able to understand it.

Does this tie into the whole skimming argument? Because I don't skim (or at least I try not to), so it's entirely possibly to say I've read books for pleasure while reading sections of those books with a grim sense of endurance or as part of some Victorian book-reading morality (if you don't read the whole book, you haven't read the book).
Dr. Cox
27. anomo
Yes, yes and yes! :) Everything you wrote, Jo, works exactly the same for me. Thank you for putting it into words so beautifully!

(In fact, thank you for all your posts here on, they're all great and you've helped me discover a lot of new writers! I'm a big fan and this is the first time I actually post a comment, so I felt it should be said...)

I definitely read for pleasure. That some books also educate me is a welcome bonus. Reading is as much a part of my daily routine as is eating or bathing. I don't "take breaks" from reading and I have a huge to-read list which is forever growing. It doesn't disturb me much that I will never read everything on it. However, the thought itself makes me a bit sad which is why I not big on re-reading (not to say that I never do it). For the same reason, I won't struggle with a book I don't like. I used be a completist - like some people already said, I felt that I had to finish every book I started. Then the thought hit me that life is too short to spend it on not-fun reading. A reader's form of a midlife crisis, I guess... and I'm not even thirty yet! :)

I was never entirely able to explain my to my husband why reading is such a big part of my life. He also reads (mostly non-fiction) but, I suspect, has never read simply "because it's fun" - he's one of those people reading to educate themselves and does not see the appeal of an activity so passive as reading.

Speaking of the passivity of reading and to answer BloodRaven's question, I admit that I feel a bit guilty (worried even) that my reading takes precedence over other more physical/active hobbies. But it's hard for any hobby to compete with reading because, as Jo said, reading is so easy to fit in at any time and place.
Jo Walton
28. bluejo
Nick: If you look at the original comment thread you'll see a whole lot of people who read this blog and who commented there talking about all these other kinds of reading they do, and the moral good and all of that. That's why I wrote this. Those comments are right there at the link if you'd like to read them.

Everyone else: great comments!
Dr. Cox
29. Danie G
Thank you for posting this! About a year ago I started to follow 'book blogs' where people wrote about the various books they were reading and I was happy to interact with fellow readers (since reading is mostly a solo hobby), but I also found a lot of what I dubbed 'book snobbery', where it seemed that the only way a book was deemed 'worthy' of reading was if it had something to say about society or politics to humanity or other meaningful subjects in its subtext - and I mostly followed fantasy book blogs, so I'm not talking about non-fiction reading. I found I was reading books that I didn't enjoy, just so that I could feel sophisticated and say 'I read this...' and it has depth and meaning, instead of reading what I enjoy, even if it is mearly escapist fiction. I've since slowed down my blog following in favour of just picking books like I used too, perusing the book shelf, reading the back covers and deciding what I want to read based on what I like and enjoy. You're article made me realize that perhaps some of those bloggers were reading for a different reason than I was. I am completely like you, I read in every spare moment and I do it for fun, to relax, de-stress - I simply enjoy it and want to read what I enjoy, not what is necessarily 'worthy' to read. And that's not to say that we still don't need those kind of books too and that we shouldn't challenge ourselves to read them once in a while, it's possible you might find one that is different, but still enjoyable, but I'm glad that others feel the same way as I do - that you can read just for fun too and it doesn't have to be for any other reason.
Constance Sublette
30. Zorra
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.

Also I read Middlemarch the first time long before I was 40 -- probably in my mid-twenties. By the time I turned 40 I'd re-read countless times, just as I re-read LoTR countless times by then.

Love, C.
Constance Sublette
31. Zorra
I do read things I don't care for much quite often, however, and that includes novels. It's research. Fortunately one also encounters great works in the course of research that one loves to read for the reading itself as much as for the subject that fascinates one so much there's the willingness to spend a lot of time doing the data crunching, puzzling out of hand-written documents, and all the other necessary drudgery that makes it possible to write books about the subject that hopefully will be as good as the ones that took your breath away.

Hope, not expect. There's no guarantee that one's own work will be that well-written, no matter how much trouble and pains one takes!

Love, C.
Dr. Cox
32. Dr. Cox
@9. DemetriosX --I know what you mean; I get twitchy w/out something to read . . . and downright cranky without anything to copyedit.
@13. XenaCatolica --Former English majors? Once an English Major, always an English Major :)
@everbody--Interesting comments added to an interesting post! I'm one of those people who likes--or perhaps doesn't get worked up over is a better description--nearly everything I read tho' I don't agree with everything in what I read . . . would objective be an apt description?
And therefore I am a rereader and also have certain books and authors I turn to depending on mood etc.
Steven Halter
33. stevenhalter
Dr. Cox & DemetriosX:I'll third that. Twitchy is a fair description of being without something to read. Our house is full of books. One of the first things I notice when I go to someone else's house is the presence/absence of books.
Dr. Cox
34. Elaine Gallagher
I utterly disbelieve in reading for moral rectitude. I had a flatmate at one time who felt that way so whenever he tried to read he'd pick the most worthy book he could find and immediately bang out of it. Needless to say he never read, and looked with wonderment on the way I gobbled books.

For me, if a book doesn't immediately grab me, I'll put it down and not go back to it, so I'd say I read for pleasure. That said, I also at times read because it's easier than doing anything else, and the books I read then are like crisps or bubblegum. Pleasant flavour, but at the end of it I didn't really find any enjoyment and the time has passed anyway. I'll go through a half dozen very quickly and later realise that nothing of them stuck. Nowadays I read what I think will actually stay with me, so a lasting pleasure of memory and wit rather than a fast fix.

When I was a kid I read books for the expansion of my horizons. Not that I thought of it that way, I just really got a kick out of reading safari books or SF or pop-sci encyclopedias or Danny Dunn. Fantasy came later on; I bounced off Diana Wynne Jones when I was young. I had to be older to appreciate them. They were about character and feelings and challenges, not wide horizons.
Liz Bourke
35. hawkwing-lb
I think there are several different kinds of pleasure. And one of them may be moral value - I don't know that I enjoy the process of reading certain books on anthropological theory or archaeological excavation reports, but the end result produces satisfaction.
Dr. Cox
36. Sam Penrose
Methinks the reader doth protest too much, and with uncharacteristic mien. "Fun" is a thin word (c.f Richard Rorty's Contigency, Irony, and Solidarity, also Clifford Geertz' "thick description"). Saying you "read for fun" is like saying you "fight for liberty" or "stand for justice": we know that already. What we don't know is what makes reading fun for you.

Except of course we know a great deal about that, because we peruse your wonderful posts on reading. In them you often focus on moral education, and sometimes say that the moral stance of a book makes it difficult for you to enjoy. Here, you say:

"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."

There's a lot to respond to here -- the moral agency of child readers is a rich topic, and one you've mined well in the past-- but I wonder if the bit about re-reading is what struck a nerve. It certainly strikes one with me. At the end of my long day, I often reach past exciting new non-genre work on my shelves to re-re-re-read genre favorites. This habit is not pure repetition -- I am currently composing in my head a rather long monograph on my favorite thriller writer, much of it about the moral aspects of his art -- but neither is it free of the sterile failure modes we rightly associate with mainstream television watching and the like. Re-reading (specifically the sort of re-re-reading you and I both do) does seem to have a strong relationship with what makes genre novels what they are, and with a less than adult mode of cognition. I love much genre work, and consider it Real Art Whatever That Means. I also think it does have a connection with childishness-in-the-bad-sense, one you of all people could shed light on should you so choose.

Thanks for your work here. Your recommendations have given me and mine many, many happy hours.
Dr. Cox
37. scarediat
I read compulsively, constantly, for joy, for distraction, to hang out with old friends, to meet new ones, to savor language, to get swept up in a great story, to learn things, to forget things, to live. I can no more stop reading than I can stop breathing. I am overwhelmingly grateful for the advent of e-readers that enable me to read even when my eyes aren't doing well (those lovely large fonts!), because my brain and my being crave the written word.

I read (and reread) magazines, blogs, the backs of cereal boxes, scientific journal articles, crispy new books that smell of clean paper and ink, tattered old books that smell of mold and dust, flyers, leaflets, pamphlets, and sometimes even my own writing.

My true measure of a book's quality is how often I reread it. There are some books I've reread well over fifty times -- they are MY classics. I have literally read books to pieces.

I read books the way some people watch television. That's the analogy I use to explain my book reading to non-readers. Television is something that is firmly in the pleasure catagory - and encompasses different sorts of pleasures, from sports to costume dramas. And most people don't mind watching reruns. That's what rereading is like for me. People watch reruns to zone out, to kill time, or to carefully parse minute details of a complicated story. Well, that's me, rereading a book.
Shelly wb
38. shellywb
I've just been thinking about this, because our limited time here was just brought home to me rather strongly. I asked myself, are there books I want to read before I die? The answer was no, (other than maybe hoping that GRRM finishes ASOIAF).

It's because for me, I read a book when it's right to read that book. If I have a list that I have to review, for instance, the book becomes a chore and I don't enjoy it as much. So for me, a book comes into my hand and I begin reading it because that's what I want to enjoy at that moment. I very much read for fun and pleasure, and I let that take me where it will, including reading books I've read many times before. I'll probably never get around to some of those "great books" I've missed, but I'll enjoy myself, which is my primary reason for reading.
Pamela Adams
39. PamAdams
For me, reading is like being a fish- I'm living in words and may not realize there's an outside world. I am a re-reader as well, and can always find something in a re-read, even if it's just enjoyment of a world I can be comfortable with. (Sort of the fuzzy slippers syndrome)

My non-fiction reading tends to follow areas of interest- recently, I read a lot of books about making the Grand Tour and other travel books. More recently, someone praised Akenfield, so I read not only that, but several of Blythe's books.
Dr. Cox
40. raeka
I wouldn't read nearly so much if I didn't love it so much, but I rarely pick up a book thinking of it as a 'fun' activity. I pick up a book because I want to feel a certain way or because I want to see how an idea is written out. There are also some books I read that I know take more energy/focus than others and they're more likely to be traditional classics and if I was reading solely for pleasure I'd read something else but I read them because I know I'll either end up enjoying them or they'll usually be worth reading to udnerstand other books or real life or something.

My brain also tends to race around constantly looking for information to suck in and words, especially in books, are by far the easiest way to get it to slow down. Sometimes I read just to feel brain-calm.
Dr. Cox
41. Natale Rueschman
What a lovely post. You've expressed my feelings about reading perfectly and made me more aware of my motivation for reading than I've ever expressed or undertsood myself. I particularly like reading as if you're going to live forever. What a wonderful idea. Thank you so much.
Dr. Cox
42. sylvia_rachel
Mostly I read because it's fun -- and because I can't not read. (I was nearly seven when I finally figured it out, and I haven't been able to stop since.) I re-read all the time, and I've certainly never felt guilty about that -- in fact, for a long time when my book-buying budget was more limited, I coped by buying only those books I'd already read from the library and knew I would want to read again. I used to feel guilty about not finishing books I'd started, but a few years ago I decided life's too short for that.

Sometimes I do read (or try to read) things I'm not necessarily strongly attracted to for the purpose of being able to join the discussion about them. For instance, I read Framley Parsonage because I wanted to understand its relationship with Tooth & Claw; I enjoyed it, but it didn't spark a Trollope reading spree.

Since I work as an editor (inter alia), I read a lot of things for pay that it would never occur to me to seek out and read for pleasure. Some of this reading is stultifying, frustrating, and/or unbelievably tedious, but some of it is unexpectedly fascinating, and every so often I look at my life from on top and go, "Look at that! I get paid to read things!"
Alan Brown
43. AlanBrown
@35 used the word I was thinking of as I read this thread. I read for satisfaction, which can come from just plain fun reading, but also from reading something that increases my knowledge. I often go through phases, which can last for years. There was the history and international relations phase, the theology phase, and even a baseball phase. And fiction veers from SF to historical to mysteries (but always back to SF).
But satisfaction and reading always go hand in hand!!!
Dr. Cox
44. OtterB
Coming late to this discussion. Abi, who is one of the moderators at Making Light, says that a contribution to the online discussion should make the group smarter, wiser, or more joyful. And I think those are the reasons I read. For specific information (smarter), for broadened horizons or deeper insight (wiser), and for the joy of it. Every reader has his/her own sources of joy in reading; my primary ones at the moment are characters I enjoy spending time with and the pleasure of seeing words well used.
Pamela Adams
45. PamAdams
You know, every time that I click to the site and see this post in the header, I hear Country Joe and the Fish in my head-
And it's One, Two, Three, what are we reading for?
Dr. Cox
47. Mantelli
I mostly read for fun, sometimes for self-education, often for distraction, and, occasionally for pain relief. I have found reading sometimes as effective or more so than an opiate. What it doesn't do, alas, is put me to sleep.
Dr. Cox
48. Luke H
I read for fun, but like the characters in Among Others, I also read for social reasons. I like to debate the merits of a good book (or a bad one,) with friends and acquaintances. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't, but there's an intimacy in having read the same book as another person.
Dr. Cox
49. Alexio
I read all the time for fun (I've just about worn out my kindle DX, now I've got a google tablet too, plus shelves full of books). As part of that I reread books and stories I like, to enjoy them again. Like demetrios and others above, lacking fun reading I'll read WHATEVER is at hand.

I also read a lot _for_ work (I'm an archaeologist, which involves a good deal of reading history and associated works - I love that our work library includes weather, local insects, plants, birds and shells, old maps and all the old reports and papers we can find) and _at_ work (while I stand by at a construction project in case they discover bones or artifacts, I read about the project area, and then whatever escape lit I've got with me).
Dr. Cox
50. fishgirl182
i have to agree with you. i read for fun and pleasure. i usually read what i want when i want. and i will definitely re-read something if that's what i feel like doing. and i really like the idea of reading like you are going to live forever. that's what my book collection looks like. haha. thanks for this thought provoking article.
Dr. Cox
51. Jshillingford
I read for escapsim. I read for pleasure. I read to learn, which does not preclude the former two reasons. I have many books I will reread, some I'd be willing to burn. It's a part of my life.
Orayelle Johnson
52. Orayelle
I read for fun––because I often read to stretch my brain and learn, and that's what is fun to me.
Though fantasy is my favorite genre, I love "classics" and engaging historical texts as well. I love reading for research! Someone spoke of research reading to gain understanding and as "mind-furnishing," which I think is a totally awesome way of putting it. Furnishing my mind makes me a much more interesting person!

As for re-reading books, I'm all for it! What defines a "classic" in my mind is something I can read from again and again and still learn (by learn I mean anything––it could be a writing technique, how it feels to experience a particular emotion (usually something you can relate to more the second time you read because you've experienced something similar in the meantime), etc) something new each time.
Ursula L
53. Ursula
I read pretty much at any moment when I'm not required to do something else that is incompatable/unsafe when done while reading.

I've found that my reading patterns track very closely to my mental health. I suffer from chronic severe depression. And if I'm doing well, I'll read constantly, both re-reading and new stuff, fiction and nonfiction. If I'm doing less-well, the nonfiction will drop off, and as things get worse, the new fiction, so that I'm only rereading fiction. If I notice what is happening, at this stage, I'll be back to my doctor to get my medication adjusted, because it isn't working. If I stop reading all together, it will happen along with a complete collapse in my ability to do anything.
Dr. Cox
54. S.M. Stirling
I stopped reading for anything but fun when I left law school.

Of course, there are different -types- of fun.

Right now I'm reading a) a book on food in WWI (THE STOMACH FOR FIGHTING, by Rachel Duffett), b) FLASHMAN ON THE MARCH, by G. Fraser, c) THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF RUSSIA, and d) a new John Buchan 'Great Game' novel, THE HALF-HEARTED.

(New in the sense that I hadn't read it before, and I'm a Buchan completist; it was written in 1901, when he was one of "Milner's Kindergarten" in the post-Boer War Transvaal.)

Different stuff, different -types- of pleasure, but all fun. Two non-fiction, two fiction, one of which is a multiple reread and one I hadn't known existed until recently. And oddly enough, two in hardcopy and two on Kindle.
Dr. Cox
55. Robin M
Reading to me is as necessary as breathing. If I don't read, fiction especially, I get grumpy. As I've aged, my interests have expanded, become more eclectic plus I now appreciate the classics more whereas when I was a teenager, not so much. I enjoy exploring more now and it's probably why I take classes and do challenges and what's behind the 52 Books challenge I run. There are books I'd thought about but probably wouldn't read otherwise. The challenges force me (well not force but encourage strongly in a fun way) to read outside my comfort zone. I also read more non fiction now but it's more for learning and research than fun. Although some have turned out to be fun reads. I never used to go back and reread books but have discovered writers whom I enjoy reading their stories over and over again. Just finished Dean Koontz Brother Odd and sorry to have the story end, felt like turning around and reading it all over again.
Dr. Cox
56. DeniseG
Hi Jo! I loved your post. Glad to see you and the commenters standing up for reading for pleasure! Some folks will look down their noses at "frivolous" reading, but it's a fundamental part of the activity of reading that you enjoy it. For myself, I read because I MUST. Reading is like breathing for me. I've always got at least one book going, sometimes two or three, scattered about the house. I re-read the ones I love the best. Reading IS escapism, enjoyment, illumination, entertainment and engagement. I can't imagine my life without it.
Dr. Cox
57. P.J. Coldren
I read for the free books - in my capacity as a reviewer for several on-line review sites. I read for entertainment, sometimes as a subset of the above, sometimes not. I read for escape - out of my fairly routine life, into someplace I'll never go, to experience things beyond my ken. I read because it stimulates my mind, unlike a lot of what passes for entertainment on the TV. I read because I can barely remember when I didn't read. I read to learn new things. My spousal unit thinks I am dying if I am not reading, and I don't like to upset the person who makes it possible for me to read as much as I do. I'm sure there are more reasons I read . . .just can't think of them right this minute.
Dr. Cox
58. SueQ
I read for the same reason that I write: I have no choice, I have to, it's an addiction. It is also an absolute, overpowering LOVE. Hardcover, paperback, e-reader, audio-book: I don't care, bring it on.
Dr. Cox
59. TrevorJ
I read because it's fun, sure. However, since "fun" is such a broad term, here is some of what's fun for me:

1. It's funny. I love humorous books, like Terry Pratchett, especially humorous books that say something about who we are as human beings, because you can always look at them and recognize yourself.

2. It's instructive. I always love learning things, even sometimes very boring things, because I can then slot them into the patterns of knowledge inside my head. This in turn enables me to understand MORE about the physical world we live in, about myself, about others, about history, sociology, mythology... Whichever it is, it's always useful.

3. Because it brings new insights. First, I keep running into other peoples' perspectives, which is a lot of fun for me and really challenges me.

4. It brings new problems to think about. As a biologist, I love reading Stross and Bujold and thinking about the conundrums they come up with involving bioethics, informational ethics, how societies change and/or stay the same in response to stimuli, and the like. Sometimes these aren't problems we have yet encountered, but just thinking about them sheds light on present conundrums. Sometimes thinking about how you might solve a fantastic problem gives you perspective on a real one.

5. It's fun to talk about with other people. I love asking questions such as the following: An apocalypse is, by original definition, a literary genre which deals, in highly symbolic terms, with the problems of human suffering, the persecution of good people, the problem of evil, and the like. What, therefore, does this say about the current wave of Zombie Apocalypse literature, TV, movies, manga, etc? (And yes, the Biblical book of Revelations is in fact a highly symbolic piece of literature about suffering and persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. No insights into the present day, sorry.)

6. It tells me a lot about myself. Some ideas make me cringe or bristle, which helps me find blind spots or weaknesses that I can then try to account for later.

7. The act of reading stimulates endorphins, for the above reasons and probably for a few I haven't figured out yet.

Too pedantic?
Dr. Cox
60. David G. Hartwell
There is love or reading and love of knowledge, and I have always found them related. I myself do love both. I have taken great pleasure in reading bibliographies, for instance, and an old friend once wrote a graceful and literate book on theme gardens. I would be interested in your thoughts directly on knowledge and reading. After all, the defenders of literature (in the old sense of everything that is written--the way scientists refer to 'the literature"--generally used knowledge and pleasure as the defense.
Hank Roberts
61. hankroberts
I read because I am, I think. I read fast -- everything else, people, movies -- is so slow by comparison. It's work to slow down.

I convinced my parents to 'teach me to read' at age 4. Given a couple of sessions with a phonics book, I was reading the newspaper out loud (only way to know what a word was, was to hear myself pronounce it). Some of my pronunciations are still unique 60 years later.

Some time later, my parents went to dinner at my father's major professor's home -- they talked after dinner; I sat on the floor across the room and picked a book off the bottom shelf, opened it and started to read.

After an hour or so, the adults walked over, my parents getting ready to leave, and I remember looking up in shock, holding the book -- I'd been reading silently -- difficult, slow, and was several pages in, completely gone into the book.

And the professor looked down, saw where I was, and gave me the book.


I still have that book.
Dr. Cox
62. KellieSnow
I noticed I have been reading more since I gave up sugar, dairy, and things that are high in saturated fat. So I guess for me, reading is #4 after Coke, mochas, and BBQ chips.
Dr. Cox
63. toddo
I read to escape reality for as long as possible. Or it may be more accurate to say to enter a different reality. All without hangovers or potential failed drug tests.
Dr. Cox
64. Sam Penrose
KellieSnow wins! With several other late commenters following very close behind. Reading can be a form of compulsive self-soothing, especially re-reading and the reading of speculative fiction, and especially the re-re-re-reading of speculative fiction.

Ever spent time with wine aficianados? Geeking out on wine (a pursuit whose social status is essentially the opposite of reading speculative fiction) shares many attractions with becoming a sophisticated speculative fiction fan. The subject is more than complex and rewarding enough to hold a smart adult's attention for decades. There are conventions, you can write/ferment your own at many levels of ambition, etc. But here's the thing ... that smart high-social-status adult will spend much of those years somewhat tipsy, if not downright drunk, and if watched closely, will reveal himself to be not unattached to the daily intoxication.

Acknowledging that attachment carries real risks, both internal (shame) and external (being labelled as an alcoholic). My experience with wine people is that they pretty much never openly discuss it. Now, am I REALLY saying that re-re-re-reading LoTR is a disorder for which one should seek medical intervention? Of course not. But it is a bit childish. Not more childish than being a serious sports fan. Certainly not more childish than following reality TV. But it comes with a scarlet L-for-Loser in a way that those habits (the former of which I would, as a recovering practioner, argue to be a wasteland compared to S.F.) do not, which perhaps adds to the challenges in looking at it squarely.

I follow Jo's work here mainly because it is downright excellent, but partly because I want to understand my own use of speculative fiction and my own habits of re-reading. Including the parts that make me feel a bit squirmy.

Now maybe asking for a serious discussion of said squirmy bits is going too far. But this is in my limited experience a wise, kind, emotionally adult community. If not here, where?
Dr. Cox
65. Jared Prebish
I agree. No matter the genre. I feel guilty for reading mostly mystery/noir/crime fiction. But it's what I like...and it's my reading for fun!!
Dr. Cox
66. Rebecca Price
Like an earlier commenter, I am subject to severe depressions. I find that what I read has a very strong effect on my mood. Therefore, no dystopians or apocalyptic books for me. I read mostly genre fiction, things that I *know* will end well (which limits my SF reading a fair bit as well - Farthing had me down for days). You could say that, for me, reading is self-medicating (and at least it's better for me than other forms of self-medication such as alcohol or drug abuse).
Jo Walton
67. bluejo
Rebecca Price: I'm so sorry! Most of my books have hopeful endings.

And self-medicating with books is something I also do. I'm going to do another post on these wider issues people have brought up.
Carl Rosenberg
68. SYAgnon
I appreciate Jo Walton's article, and share her view of reading. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, surely one of the most accomplished practitioners of fantastic (or any other) kind of literature, similarly described himself as a "hedonistic reader." He once said that "people should get a kick out of literature," and also that he wanted his work to be enjoyed--"Yes, enjoyed. I'm not interested in respect."
Dr. Cox
69. Rebecca Price
Not to worry, Jo. While I haven't read Among Others yet, it's high on my TBR list, having been reassured by those I trust that it will be a good book for me to read.

I look forward to your post on self-medicating with books... I'm sure you'll say things much better than ever I could.
Dr. Cox
70. encore728
I read for pleasure. I read information. I reread for joy. While reading you can be anyone and anywhere.
Dr. Cox
71. Alexander Case
Generally, when I read, I'm reading for enjoyment (unless I'm reading something for a class of because I'm trying to teach myself something). For that matter, when I discuss something I've read as a review or whatever, that's usually done for the same reason - to share my enjoyment of reading - and of the book I reviewed.
Dr. Cox
74. elricprincess
What got me into reading, other than personal interest was this thing the school did where you get points for reading books and at the end of the years you get prizes based on how many points you had. That year I discovered the Dragonriders of Pern series and I haven't stopped reading Scifi and Fantasy since also I got the highest points at the end of the year and got a entire bag full of Goosebumps books.

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