The Philosophy of Reading

Reading, like most things, is a matter of preference; some love it, some hate it and some only bring out the books during the hours spent on the beach in summer. Despite this, it is a sad fact that reading is a pastime met with far more disdain than any others (apart from maybe train spotting or stamp collecting). When you happen to mention your love of literature or that your university degree involves the reading of fiction, some common reactions are either ‘urgh really’ or ‘why would you want to read?’ It is the latter that I think is the most difficult to explain.

There are multiple answers to the question of why we read and each of those answers is personal to ourselves because reading is a personal act. The answer we give in some ways reveals something about the way our minds work. Of course, not all people are quite so self-conscious about their reasons for reading. Some just simply read for enjoyment or last thing at night to send them to sleep. Yet, each of these answers shows how books are able to distract us from our own lives and throw us into someone else’s for a while either for the enjoyment of this distraction or to take our minds off things on a night. In this way, reading becomes a form of escapism. Many of us read to take a brief moment of respite from our own world. The newly opened world in the book is something we can control. We decide how much we want to get involved and how much we want to read. In a way, we can control the plot simply by reading the end before the beginning. We choose when to pick up the personas problems and when to close them away within the book again. This is, of course, something we cannot do with our own lives. It would be great to be able to flick ahead a few years or draft out a new ending but we can only type up each day as it happens.

We do not only read for a distraction but to learn. In a book, someone else’s life is on show for us to read into. The proliferation of autobiographies over the past few years shows the curiosity that we feel towards other people’s lives. This is not just from nosiness; often someone else’s experience is a good template for ourselves or a way of understanding the world around us. The same things can be found in fiction. The characters in our favourite novels are often not far from ourselves or something we aspire to be. Alongside this, authors are able to shape experiences to make their readers question things they wouldn’t normally question or understand things they’ve never understood. Literature is memorable and quotations are everywhere, on the internet, on greetings cards, merchandise, tattoos; people use quotes to put into words what they do not have the vocabulary to explain. Those emotions we can’t express, those words that have significance in our lives, those that help us understand and those that show the way we wish we looked at the world. Though we read to take enjoyment in someone else’s world for a while, through reading we can also gain some knowledge about our lives or have expressed the inexpressible.

I think a lot can be learned from fiction and from understanding why we read. Though, it is a personal act, reading is something we often share with each other. By sharing the reasons for why we read, we might just understand a little more. I am an avid collector of quotes and I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald answers this difficult question most comprehensibly.

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