What’s Reading For Part 2: Books Do Furnish a Mind

My post What’s Reading For? developed a lively comment thread in which the majority endorsed my Epicurean view that “Reading is usually the most fun I can have at any given moment.” But there were some very interesting dissenting voices, and I’d like to have a look at them too. There’s a way in which I do read in all of kinds of different ways, and in which they are interesting ways to think about how and why we read.

Part 1: Ways I read

SPC talks about “reading for cultural relevance”—reading one book you don’t really like to better understand another book, or reading something everyone is talking about so that you can be part of the conversation.

I do this. I don’t very much do the first part—or rather I do track books from other books but I don’t keep reading them if I don’t like them. I read half of Three Men in a Boat because of Have Spacesuit Will Travel, but I stopped when I wasn’t having fun yet. (I did a lot better on cultural appreciation via Heinlein with Rodin and Ming bowls.) The second part, though, I absolutely do. If everyone—for values of “everyone” which means “lots of people I talk to online”—is talking about a book, that book will be on my radar and I’ll look out for it. I’ll be reluctant to buy it just for this reason, and will most likely take it out of the library. Taking things out of the library frequently does lead to buying things if I like them. Or somebody will lend it to me, and then I’ll buy it. Or the other way around, I’ll be talking about some book to a friend and I’ll lend it to them. (I’ve really noticed this as one of the ways where having e-books falls down—I can’t lend them in the same way.)

Of course, this can have the failure mode that if everyone is talking about a book too much before I get to it then I can be actually put off it—which is generally terribly unfair to the poor book. Sometimes I read things years after everyone else because I was turned off by hype and then kick myself.

DemetriosX made the excellent point that reading is for pleasure in the same way that breathing is for pleasure. I really can’t argue with that for me either. If I’m awake and not actively engaged in something else, I’m reading.

Kukkorovaca made the “books do furnish a mind” point that was where I started from on all of this—reading things at impressionable ages has a real effect on who we are. I can’t deny that this is the case. Indeed, I wrote a whole book that’s largely about this, about how reading gives you the tools to cope with the world.

Sam Penrose considers the morality of re-reading something for the nth time and thinks that this is a less than adult mode of reading. I would argue that I get more out of things every time I read them, but I’d also direct his attention to Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built which has a very interesting discussion of this.

Trevor J talks about the ways reading is fun, and includes:

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.

This is fun for me, too, and this is something I always really appreciate. Give me a new thing, or a new perspective, or switch the angle on which I can see something and I am happy. Give me a new ethical problem and I can be happy for weeks. This relates to what I always say about literature being about human nature—we can say more interesting things about human nature if we can contrast it with alien nature or robot nature.

A couple of people said they read as self-medication or stress relief—reading affects their mood, so they read things that will elevate their moods, reading quite literally as a mind altering experience. I do not suffer from depression, thank goodness, because from the experience of my friends I think it’s literally more crippling than being crippled. For people who have long-term and permanent depression monitoring reading must be essential.

But I do read to cheer myself up when I am down in the short term way I do sometimes get down. The way I think of this style of reading is the advice from Chaucer Hath Blog “Take two Buffy Ye Vampyre Slayer and call me in the morning.” When I am in that state I do deliberately select things that will help. Cheerful isn’t enough, it needs to also be absorbing enough to take me out of myself. Comfort reading is comforting, and there isn’t anything at all wrong with being comforted when you need it. I remember reading A Million Open Doors years ago when I was reeling from a breakup, and getting completely caught up in it and taken away from my own misery. And then I got to the end of it and my misery fell on me like a collapsing wall and I consciously decided not to read Earth Made of Glass (which was as far as that sequence went back then) because Earth Made of Glass is a real downer. If I recall correctly I spent the next week alternating between Georgette Heyer and Donald Westlake.

Part 2: Ways I do not read

Lots of people compared reading to TV watching. I flat out do not watch TV, never, not at all. I just don’t care for it. I don’t even own a TV. So this is not a competition for me, TV is no fun, reading is fun, end of story. (This is also the answer to the frequently asked question of how I have time to read as much as I do. I haven’t voluntarily watched TV in decades.)

PhoenixFalls talks about reading for the desire to complete something out of sheer stubbornness. I do not have this. I will give up. I may try again when I’m older, but if it’s not working I put it down.

LaurenJ asks if this ties into skimming. I have no idea. I still can’t get my head around the fact that people skim. I literally don’t get it.

Other people said they read to be smarter or gain knowledge, which I pretty much flat out do not do, except when it comes to research reading as previously discussed. David Hartwell talks about reading bibliographies for fun. I have read the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, and I have extensively mined the name list in Culhwch and Olwen, and I have compared these to the way people memorize names of Pokemon. But I don’t do any of this and I don’t really see the appeal.

In a related way, Danie G talks about reading certain things to feel sophisticated and be able to say you read them. I don’t do this, and I’m glad you’ve quit! It feels counter productive. And I hate it when people assume that this is why I am reading something, when it absolutely never is.

Blood Raven talks about feeling guilty because reading is so passive:

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?

I don’t feel this way at all. I don’t think the things I do for fun have to have a payoff. I get a payoff from defending civlization and making art and building the future and mending the world, and I get a payoff from the things I put in the caregory of doing laundry, at least I get clean clothes. But I don’t feel guilty about the way I spend my my leisure time and you can’t make me. Should I be playing sports? Well, not me, somebody who physically could? Sure. But it would be better still if they were helping lepers. This is a path which leads directly away from any possibility of happiness short of sleeping three hours a night and joining the Peace Corps. Everything doesn’t have to be good for you. By all means get out there and defend civilization, exercise, floss, and earn money! But the rest of the time I feel no guilt whatsover about relaxing and reading my book.

Any more reasons for reading?

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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