Why We Read


As your personal bookseller, let me ask you a personal question. How did you get this habit? Yeah, I said habit. You and I both know you’re addicted. Don’t be coy, you know what I’m talking about. You don’t read because it’s virtuous, you read because you have to. Because you’re squirmy and irritable when you’re not involved in a good book. There’s a name for that kind of craving, brother. Let’s be honest. Let’s call it what it is. Sure, we can pat ourselves on the back for being good little readers, but you and I both know it’s not a moral choice. It’s an addiction.

Let’s act like the Socratic method still matters. Let’s ask: what is the nature of this addiction, and is it good?

First let’s look at the habit itself.

What does the addict look like when using?

We’ve all seen people mainlining books. They can do it in public on the bus, or where other people are eating, or in the privacy of the bathroom. It can be done standing or sitting, though usually the addict tries to be comfortable first. The book has to be opened for the high to start coming on. The addict appears to go into a daze. They lose touch with their surroundings, lose contact with other human beings, and if startled out of the high will be disoriented. The user’s face generally becomes relaxed, almost flaccid, and the mouth often hangs slightly opens while the eyes remain rigidly focused on the open book, frequently seeing little else.

That’s what it looks like. What is occurring in the reader’s mind during this behavior?

Let’s get serious now, because this matters to me. The actual process is trickier than I ever thought. The reader’s eyes recognize the symbols put down by the author. The reader has associations with those words, and plugs them in. The author puts those associations in a chain, which – at least in the author’s mind – trigger a thought or an emotion. To generate that thought or emotion, the reader’s mind has to collaborate with the author’s mind. That collaboration, when it works, is what causes the high.

So it’s not just the symbol doing the work. The chemistry can’t happen without the reader supplying something, too. The high can’t occur without the reader’s own imagination creating a personal mental state which is an approximate recreation of an experience set out by the author who arranged the symbols. The text has to be processed through the individual reader’s own personal filter.

Face it, even if we all read the same book, it’s a unique experience by the time it filters through our personal brain. I think it’s genius, you think it’s trash, and your friend fell asleep. Who’s right? Depends on what we’re trying to find.

People repeat what gives them satisfaction – in this case, they often spend their lives searching for books like those first ones that gave them pleasure.

Readers who repeat their experiences begin to have expectations for certain kinds of reading. For some of us, that means needing to read certain kinds of books. Books don’t last. You finish them. They read differently when you know what’s coming next. You always need new ones. You read everything an author wrote, and then what? You’re hunting again. Needing again. The book itself, as the trigger of the reading experience, becomes the addiction.

But not all books.

Everyone is out to re-capture different pleasures, and is looking for different books to satisfy that personal craving, that individual need.


So, if you’re with me so far, and can buy that book-reading is an addicting habit, the question arises – why do people do it? What drives them to read one book after another? I can think of four primary motives for reading.

Detachment of storytelling.

This is the simple pleasure of hearing a story. We read to fall into the storytelling spell. It’s an ancient pleasure, as old as the human race. It’s the pleasure of escape. Most readers fall into this category. You can make fun of compulsive romance readers who go through two a day, until you start saving the world from nuclear holocaust on a weekly basis, or solving murders with sassy, sexy women, or catapulting from planet to planet, or seeking the magic sword from kingdom to kingdom.

That kind of storytelling, intended to induce a trance of apprehension, serves a vital purpose in the lives of zillions. It always has. Ask Homer. A good story is spellbinding. When you get involved in a story, you detach. You stop worrying about in-laws or payday or sales, and worry about aliens and serial killers. You get to slip out of the daily drudge, from your bruised and tired and grumpy and underappreciated life. You get to taste a little meaning. Reading a good escape novel gives an overworked mind a refreshing mental break, a little relaxation from the stress of business, a tiny vacation from everyday reality.

Everyone has their favorite flavor. For some it’s heroics, local or international, in fantasyland or the future. For some it’s the cunning of discovery in a good mystery. For some the format of a genre is absolutely essential. For the trance to work, the novel needs familiar parameters. When the storytelling is effective, the reader snaps out of reality and enters a more intense, more exciting, sexier world where the good guys usually win.

Trance reading, or mental vacation reading, can be a kind of meditation. On a fifteen-minute break or bus ride, the uncomfortable reader detaches from bumping into strangers or loud people talking into cell phones by zinging into the pleasure zone. The words become the mantra. The words start up, the pleasure takes over.

Empowerment through information.

This is a different kind of reading. It can become just as compulsive. The more you understand the world, the more you can change it. This information-addicted reader is looking for data, for facts. She wants the latest political revelations, hoping to finally understand how America got in this mess. He wants to understand the history of the Middle East. The quest for knowledge can be totally pragmatic or a kind of pleasurable mental calisthenics. An informed citizen doesn’t feel quite so helpless. An informed traveler makes fewer mistakes. An informed cook can become a sexy, glamorous television celebrity… well, okay, but you know what I mean.

Enlightenment/moral wisdom.

People who only read the Bible fall into this category, or the Quran, or the Torah. Or the I Ching. Or Pema Chodron and Byron Katie. People who want to heal themselves badly enough read books looking for the moral wisdom to come to terms with their own disappointments and shortcomings. People who follow the latest pop-psych guru on Oprah fall into this group. But so do literature-lovers who treasure the Bhagavad-Gita and Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor or the love-drunk poetry of Rumi. This is reading for spiritual food, for inspiration to live a good life, for insight into human nature, for spiritual solace or inspiration.

Beauty of words.

Just the beauty of language, period. This is poetry, of course, in any of its many manifestations, anything that celebrates words over content, where the words themselves becomes the objects of addiction.

That’s it, I think. Most of us reading addicts are driven by some combination of these four reasons.

Well then, if these are the four ballparks of human motivation for reading, then which of these are my own personal motives? What are the criteria that make me want to read a book?


For fifty years, reading books has been one of my greatest pleasures. But my idea of a good book has changed dramatically. I’ve been many different readers, all of them reading books I’d never dream of reading now. I’ve searched for books passionately that I would laugh at now, and scorned others that I now treasure.

My collections surround me in my home. I’ve spent years of my life reading Proust and Chekhov, Iris Murdoch and Hermann Hesse. But I’ve also lavished years of reading on dragon-packed fantasies, on Ross Macdonald and Jim Thompson, vampire novels and ghost stories.

And that’s not what I’m reading now.

We all read what we need, and our needs change.

Right now I’m looking for a certain kind of thoughtful, honest novel, and I’m searching for it around the world. I’m trying to spot literature happening at the moment. I’m exploring voices from the non-Western world. I want to see myself and my country from the outside. I want to hear what life is like around the world through translated literature. As a bookseller, I want to sift through the mudslide of new fiction and find the new gems being published anywhere on this planet, the new authors who are trying to tell their stories in the real world we live in today.

I’m like any other addicted reader. I’m hunting for a fix, and I’ll know it when I find it. These days I’ve got three criteria for new books.


I’m a different reader on this side of 9/11. By sheer fate, the Nick’s Pick of the Month promotion began in October, 2001, three weeks after the world changed. I don’t think I’ve read a fantasy since. The door into Faery is closed forever. The world today is my obsession, the real world, as real as it can get. Even magical realism seems lame in these post 9/11 days. Who needs it? There’s enough fantasy in our lives. I feel like I’m living in a country that lives in a fantasy – the fantasy that killing 600,000 Iraqis has anything to do with goodness. I, for one, passionately want to see what’s really there, under the surface, under the make-up, behind the polite performance. I want to read true stories or faux-true stories that take place in a reality that opens my eyes, with real choices, real people, real endings.

First Person

I’ve pretty much given up on third person. Now there’s a fantasy. Who can really know why other people do things? It’s a fantasy that any narrator can know why multiple characters do what they do and feel what they feel. No one can. It’s hard enough to know why you do things yourself. I never know what I’m feeling until days later.

So I want my stories narrated within the tight confines of first person. One pair of eyes, one brain, trying to make sense of the world. Only narratives told in first person are limited to a realistic perception of reality. We don’t know for sure why anyone does anything. We guess. All day long we’re guessing. Our lives are filled with guesses and most of them are errors. The errors are what plots are made of. The plot makes us guess that life is one way, until we discover it’s really another way.

In fiction or memoirs, the earliest first-person narratives (think Moll Flanders, Jonathan Wild) were usually an account of sinning, in one form or another, usually ending in repentance or death or both. These early first person narratives became the classic genre of confession.

All first person narratives are a kind of confession. First person means seeing the world through the faulty perspective of a single point of view. That means seeing incorrectly. That means misunderstandings. This is the genre where the unreliable narrator is king. First person is theatrical, it’s the illusion of one character talking directly to the reader. It’s a monologue, one half-blind human trying to understand his or her world.

Moral Issues

My last major criteria is relevance. I want the subject matter to be worth thinking about. I want to read about choices and beliefs that matter. I’m interested in perceptions about the reality of the human condition. “Why do we do what we do?” “What should we be doing?” “What is the truth?” “What is the value of life?” These are the gnawing issues we want to settle in our minds. There are some fascinating answers to these questions in realistic novels from all over the world.

I no longer have time for books with angels, vampires, magic and dragons. No more hit men. No more serial killers. No more aliens or talking animals. No more unhappy beautiful sexy people or dead people telling the story.

I need books to remind me of the real world I live in, books that open my eyes and my mind and my heart. Books that let me live someone else’s life.

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