Why Do We Read?

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At first glance the answer to this question seems almost embarrassingly obvious. We read for knowledge, we read for pleasure, we read because someone told us to. Maybe we read because it’s the only way to complete a project at work or to get to sleep at night. Or do we perhaps read because we are self-centered creatures who look to books as we look to mirrors, as a way to reflect upon our own selves?

Marcel Proust would have said yes.

In the seventh volume of his epic novel “In Search of Lost Time,” Proust opines, “In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.”

In other words, books help us to see and understand our own experiences. Moreover, once we do so, the fact that the book seems to back up this understanding lends credibility to the experience itself. In this sense, books are a means to a psychological end: through their words, paragraphs and pages, we get to know ourselves better.

Alain de Botton, in his instant classic “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” expands upon this by stating that books have the ability to “bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.” Here books again figure as the heroic microscopes through which we more clearly perceive our own realities.

Yet does this really mesh with why most of us read? When we crawl into bed at night with a guilty pleasure, when we pull a favorite novel off a shelf (Harry Potter, anyone?), when we thumb the well-worn pages of a childhood tome, are we doing so because we long to know ourselves better?

A study entitled “The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure: Needs and Gratifications,” published in Reading Research Quarterly, suggests otherwise. In fact, it claims that readers frequently do the opposite of seeking out self-knowledge. They read for pure enjoyment, for escape, for the express purpose of stepping outside their reality. In fact, escapism, which is often cited as a reason for reading, “is often synonymous with the blocking of self-awareness,” the study says.

So which is it?

I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between. We all long to know ourselves. On the other hand, we all crave escape from long days and too-real lives. Most likely literature serves different purposes at different times.

I, for one, plan to pay attention the next time I pick up a book – old or new, fiction or non – to the service it is providing. Perhaps with practice, I can learn to use this tension to my benefit: deepening life experiences when I wish to, plunging headlong into a reality-blind Hogwarts adventure when the mood strikes, and never the twain shall meet.

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