Why do we read? Is it purely for enjoyment? Well then, why is reading enjoyable? Why do we enjoy learning new facts and experiencing the worlds that other people create?
Let’s take a slightly different approach to the question. What is the purpose of reading? Lots of people don’t like to read–that’s obvious. But why should they? Purely for enjoyment? Is that really the purpose? In The Torchlight List, a book about books that I’m reading, Jim Flynn, the author, opens by making a case for reading. The title of that opening chapter should give you a hint as to his argument: “Born Into the Magic Realm.”
Flynn begins by commenting on the lack of reading interest among teenagers. He describes a fascinating disparity between two things: teenage vocabulary and adult vocabulary, and teenage reading interest and adult reading interest. He references a test that ultimately concluded that while teenagers are unable to use as many words as adults can, as they grow into adults the disparity between their vocabulary and adult vocabulary lessens.
In other words, they make up for lost ground. Not so for reading. According to Flynn teenagers do not “put a high priority on reading literature that requires concentration and wide general knowledge. (P. 6)” So why should they? Or, should they at all? If the purpose of reading is enjoyment first and foremost, then if I don’t enjoy reading, why should I do it?
Flynn doesn’t think that the purpose of reading is enjoyment.
He states the following: “In a book in press, I try to give people the concepts they need to comprehend the complexities of the modern world. I want them to be free. (P. 8)” (emphasis mine)
Free? What does reading have to do with being free? Flynn proceeds to make a very convincing argument. He claims that reading gives us tools–information and knowledge that can help us evaluate the world around us. It gives us the information necessary to not only evaluate, but to shape and change the world.
I’m inclined to agree–at least agree that freedom is a better purpose for reading then enjoyment. If reading is purely for enjoyment, for pleasure, then there is no real reason to read if it does not bring you those things. If it is for freedom, we have a more objective, and perhaps better purpose for reading. Along with freedom, we get much more, and Flynn makes that point clear in his final paragraph.
“You can know enough accounting to help a corporation evade their taxes, own a large house and drive an expensive car, and yet be no freer than a medieval surf, buffeted about by social forces he could not comprehend. Or you can enter a magic realm, in which people are more interesting, informed, amusing and intelligent than anyone you encounter in everyday life. You can learn about our past, its wars and triumphs, you can learn about our time, its sins and joys, about America, Britain, the Russian soul, and why we will all have to settle for less if our planet is to survive.”
Flynn clearly believes that reading is freeing because it gives us the tools to know, comprehend, and influence the world around us. And I’m inclined, at least to some extent, to agree with him.