Category Archives: Fear the Reader

Why do we read?

To Explore

Reading gives us access to new ideas and new knowledge. It lets us visit distant times and unfamiliar locations, and temporarily inhabit other lives and relationships. We explore what is happening in our world through news reports and in-depth articles. We explore skills like cooking and learning a language. Academic reading pushes us to learn by exploring, whether it’s Feynman’s physics lectures, essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And exploration happens with both nonfiction and fiction, as Bill Gates said: “A lot of the reading I do is so I can keep learning about the world. But I love the way good fiction can take you out of your own thoughts and into someone else’s.”

To Escape

Escapism has a bad rap, but sometimes you’ve got to get away and reading offers an exit. I was born in 1968 when my sister was just 13 months old. My father was a graduate student and the hot streets of south Philadelphia simmered with tension in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. My mother, a nice Catholic girl from Denver, was stuck in a third-floor apartment with two infants, no air conditioning, and no money. She credits J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with getting her through those days, as she escaped to the elves and orcs and misty mountains of Middle Earth.

Like my mom, the women of Japan’s Heian court around 1000 CE were confined, but by their culture rather than temporary circumstances. Only men were permitted to read Chinese characters and literature, but women and men communicated via written poems using the lesser Kana script, a phonetic transcription of spoken Japanese. One woman (known today only by the name of her famous character, Murasaki Shikibu), secretly learned to read Chinese as a child and went on to write the first real novel in history, The Tale of Genji. To hide her unbecoming knowledge of Chinese and protect herself from gossip, she wrote in Kana, which allowed other women to use her epic work as an escape from the luxurious forced boredom of their lives.

To Engage

With email, texting, social media, discussion forums, and online commenting, so much of our daily reading is an effort to engage with others. The 4000 or so editors in my busiest Facebook group can lure me into hours of distraction, with posts from the practical (“How do I respond to criticism from a client?”) to the ridiculous (“Check out these shoes that look like pencils!”). This engagement is compelling, even addictive. But we choose longer forms of reading to engage us, too. With the connection we build with characters and emotions in novels, we can experience grief (also known as a book hangover) when a good book ends, as book-grieving readers attested on a recent Reddit thread with more than 1000 posts.

To Empower

This purpose is perhaps the most important and certainly the most dangerous. And it gets a post of its own.


A Word about Sources
My exploration of how reading began owes a debt to the authors of several books related to this subject. My questions first formed as I read
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christoper De Hamel. I then found essential information in A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading in the West edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, The Written World by Martin Puchner, and The Book by Keith Houston. The 2006 Education for All “Literacy for Life” Global Monitoring Report from UNESCO was fascinating and valuable, particularly chapter 8, “The Making of Literate Societies.”

The Words Around Us

North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is not a destination for upscale vacations. You enter the cheap “Going out (for) business!” beach stores through the mouth of a giant shark to buy flimsy chairs, painted shells, and non-sea-worthy swimsuits. The fried seafood buffets and ice cream shops attract long lines of people hungry after a day in the sun. Mini-golf courses compete for attention – see the volcano belching smoke! Watch the animatronic pirates battle! There’s not a bookstore in sight.

During our annual week in Myrtle, I especially enjoy walking the section of beach in front of the nearby high-rise hotel. The sand there is paved with chairs, blankets, coolers, umbrellas, and bodies of every shade and shape. Plump moms in swim dresses chase toddlers while skinny teen boys hop on skim boards. Elderly locals sit and smoke, displaying their signature deep and wrinkly tans. It’s a busy place of earthly delights – hot sun, salty waves, cold drinks, flesh on parade – not a place that seems inclined toward intellectual pursuits. Yet everywhere you look, people sit and read.

For me, this silences those constant rumbles about the death of reading. You can’t fling a plastic shovel in Myrtle Beach without getting sand in somebody’s pages. And I mean their pages, not the crevices of their Kindle, because almost no one on the beach is staring at their phone or e-reader. Thick paperbacks rustle in the breeze while the tide approaches and recedes. The beach always makes me think about the inexorable changes of time, so it feels a fitting setting to consider how humanity has been reading, in some form or another, for 5000 years.

We read constantly, most of us, without any thought or effort. Yesterday was typical: I received 87 emails and read some of every single one, even if it was just the subject line or the name of the sender. One of my Facebook groups has nearly 10,000 members, editors all around the world, who post a lot, asking questions and sharing concerns. I read these posts and many of the replies. I read texts I receive. I read news articles in print and online. I read almost all day long, and then in the evening to relax, I read.

And it’s not just avid readers like me who are always reading. All those annoying people on their phones while walking, dining out, and especially driving – they’re reading. All those people with laptops in coffee shops – they’re reading away, and even if they’re writing, they’re reading. We as a society are constant readers. Road signs, nutrition information, Tweets, fast-food menu boards, fantasy football stats, TV news crawls, Reddit threads, bumper stickers. And books – fiction and non, highbrow and low. From Fifty Shades of Grey to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, in print or as ebooks, we’re reading.

Reading started in another hot and sandy region: ancient Mesopotamia, where the very first reading involved accounting and records of temple assets. When a man by the Tigris river 5000 years ago could look at the markings on a clay tablet and know the number of sheep to expect in a payment, reading – for the first time – gave power.

Fear the Reader

I only wanted to find out when we started reading – we humans, we non-royals, we non-clerics, we women. But as I pursued this information across 5000 years of Western history, I reached a conclusion much more compelling than just the when and the whom: Reading makes people powerful and dangerous – to institutions and to ourselves. And it always has.

The world’s very first readers (and writers) were the scribes of ancient Babylon, who recorded and read the data, news, and information that kings and administrators needed to make their civilizations grow and thrive. While these abilities made scribes powerful, they also made the scribes a potential threat to those in charge.

This dynamic continues today.

I don’t feel like a dangerous force when I’m enjoying a novel or bantering with other editors on Facebook. But the power that I, an ordinary person, can gain from reading becomes clear when I freely read whatever I choose from across the political spectrum. I can easily acquire information about joining with others to support change – potentially threatening the status quo. I also see that my reading could conceivably present a danger to me, if my government began to use data to constrain the reading of its citizens.

The power and the danger of reading are alive and well.

In the coming weeks, I will share a series of posts from my process of uncovering this idea.