In this post, I wanted to tackle what might be one of the hardest questions a writer has to answer: Why does someone read? On the surface, it seems as simple as asking why we eat, why we like Coke instead of Pepsi, or why some nights we prefer to watch television rather than go out with friends.
On the surface, we read because we have an excess of time that needs to be filled. If work and other essential demands took up the entirety of a person’s day, they wouldn’t read. Under this assertion, books are nothing more than another form of entertainment, interchangeable with movies, television, or videogames.
Let’s go to the next level. That cheesy saying on bookmarks everywhere: ‘Reading takes you places.’ Okay, so reading is valuable because it allows for experiences which would otherwise be inaccessible. I like that, but I would also be quick to point out that if this were the true purpose of reading, the most popular genre of novel would no doubt be nonfiction travel guides. If I’m honest, as a reader I don’t much care about the places if a story doesn’t pull me in some other way.
I care about the experiences, about my heart being moved. More than any other form of entertainment, I believe novels have an ability to evoke the human spirit. They create a connection to people who exist only between the pages. I grew up with Harry Potter; I watched Frodo drop the ring into Mount Doom and Katniss fight against Panem. If you asked me what I thought about any of those characters, I would no doubt speak of them as I would old friends. Katniss was a bit headstrong at times, and Harry beat himself up too much for his mistakes. The thought of the half-smile on Sirius’ face as he died still makes me sigh.
That’s why I think we read books. The worlds and the entertainment are both byproducts. What matters most is the emotion, a connection to wholly imaginary characters. I believe it was Stephen King who said that writing was a real form of telepathy, in which memories and ideas can be communicated from mind to mind without any talking necessary. The only variable is time.
Just as you don’t care to hear the stories of those you don’t care about, a character who doesn’t move the heart will not move many novels either. Sure, there are a few exceptions, in which the story itself is so fantastic that the emotional aspects don’t matter. But for the most part, the soul of the thing is why we read.
In past months, this would be where I bring it back to the concrete. But, as I’m trying to turn over a new stone, I think I’ll leave the question here. Move the human heart however you know how, and I’ll try to do the same.