Why read?

It’s been a tough year, and in the tumult of it, I stopped enjoying reading. Instead, I watched films, which are just as wonderful, but do a fundamentally different job. If you feel jaded with reading, or you want to think a little more deeply about what it means to read, I recommend the book I dug out this week, a collection of short essays, Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!.

I took some notes for myself and thought here was as good a place to put them as any.

‘A trained mind is a mind that can concentrate.’ – Jeanette Winterson

When we read a book we create a unique experience for ourselves from the words, like a musician does with a piece of music. The brain falls into a trance-like state and to our minds it is as if the events are really happening. Strong emotions alter the brain, so reading physically changes us, and in reading we can discover parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed. It can also simply be an escape from daily suffering. It’s a relief to find out other people have similar thoughts and feelings to us, and we are not alone.

It’s thrilling to be transported to another world. The right book is a question of taste and timing. It’s important to love language – this is where books are different from films. Words convey inner experience in a way that film cannot. We can inhabit novels and become friends with them. Poems can be life-saving to people in the depths of despair and sharing our experiences of reading builds groups and communities.

Tim Parks says modern life is fast and there is pressure to rush, but rushing ruins reading. The opening pages of a book show the author’s intent. Writers use the tricks of language to get into our heads, so don’t be a pushover and be ready to walk away. Pay attention and think critically. The perfect mode of reading is a kind of wakeful enchantment. Reading critically is a question of self-esteem.

Jeanette Winterson describes the imaginary world of books as ‘the total world’, holding the inner and outer as one whole. Time isn’t linear in books, just as it isn’t in memory, where we group things by meaning and symbolic power. For her, reading is a way of being at home in her own mind. It’s ‘a private conversation happening somewhere in the soul’. She says books work from the inside out and balance the work we have to do in the world to survive. Art (and writing) is a medium for the soul, so find books that have being, is-ness, vitality.