Serious readers are a special breed. They are always reading. Why do they read so much? The answer would need to account for their frequent choice of “fun” over “serious” reading. Many readers report choosing “guilty pleasure” books--mysteries, science fiction, and romances—whereas they used to read “serious” and “hard” books sometime in the past, works by writers like William Shakespeare, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. They read “hard” works in school and believe that they really should be reading more of them now. If only one could cart a few pounds of Shakespeare, Eliot, and Austen to a cabin for some uninterrupted self-improvement reading!
How odd that so many readers should feel guilty about the reading that they are not doing. I suggest that it may be unproductive to think in terms of “hard” and “guilty-pleasure” books. A more helpful approach that gets around the guilt of “guilty-pleasure” reading could arise from looking at what actually happens when we read and what reading does for us as we overcome the challenges of each text. For example, think about how readers must master an array of facts as part of reading anything--possibly the year of the French Revolution, the significance of the myth of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, the protracted and unique difficulties of resolving the Viet Nam War, etc., or they must look up such dates, people, places, and events. For that text to make sense, they must get hold of relevant cultural knowledge. Often a quick look into a history book, a Google search, or reading a Wikipedia article will clear up such questions. But without such clarifications, what we do not know that is relevant to the text will be a wall to our reading comprehension.
It also matters if the text is a novel, an historical tract, a poem, rap lyrics, or an opera libretto, and—whatever form the text is in--we have to learn to decipher that form of reading and learn its rules of operation. If we don’t learn how that sort of text works, we won’t get anywhere with it.
We also need to understand the special “plan” and planned effects of the work we are reading. Certain words may be in dialect for a special effect. The narrator may act unaware of information obvious to the reader, or the writer may withhold information to mislead the reader, etc. In each case, the writer has made choices to shape the reading experience to create a particular vision for that work, and these “planned” effects need to be accessed to guide the reading experience.
Once we surmount these basics of reading (all solvable but a “wall” if we do not work through them), we encounter the most important reading challenge of all: the need to see in the text a focused view of the world. This is not a question that we can look up or surmount with familiarity. The challenge here is that readers must adopt the cultural perspective that will allow the text to make sense, something like finding the “right” angle to view a painting. This is not easy to do, but the demands of general coherence require us to reach that point where all of the pieces might fit together. Readers get to this point as an adjustment or change in their own understanding of the world that allows them to succeed in grasping that war novel, Russian crime novel, Zimbabwean poem, or American play in a way that is enlightening and involving.
The upshot of this perspective on reading is that, fundamentally, we read imaginative literature in order to change and evolve as people, and the text that opens and supports that process has great value for us. The text’s pedigree (“hard” serious literature vs. “guilty-pleasure reading”) does not matter if it advances that process. We read literature not because doing so is prestigious or to acquire knowledge per se but to submit ourselves to the process of change and transformation that is at base what reading is about.
Granted, the conditions of reading literature in the digital age often work against serious reading, as coping with the four reading challenges I have described requires a sustained focus. The allure of instant access to information can be hard to resist, and a dedicated reader must learn to avoid distractions. William Powers’ Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age embraces current technology but argues that most of us frequently go to the brink of being overwhelmed by information streams that are moving in too many directions simultaneously. So a strategy for combating the forces that would distract and, ultimately, disorient us as individuals and as a culture--what Friedrich Nietzsche calls “slow reading”--would be a valuable plan for managing our personal information environment.
Why must we read? We read because doing so helps us to grow and is essential to what makes us human. The American poet William Carlos Williams once wrote that men and women die every day for lack of what they could find in poetry. It is critical to recognize that reading literary works can give us something that has its own value--a fuller grasp of who we are and how we fit into the world around us.
Note: this discussion is indebted to George Steiner’s On Difficulty and other Essays (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978).