Thursday, February 25, 2010

BTT - Why We Read....

Well, get ready to hold onto your seats, because this week's Booking through Thursday's question suggested by Janet  is a deep one:

I’ve seen this quotation in several places lately. It’s from Sven Birkerts’ ‘The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age’:
“To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or one’s orientation toward it.”
To what extent does this describe you?

Well, I apparently do not frequent those same sites, because this was the first time that I had seen this quote, and to be honest, I had to re-read it a couple of times to half-way understand Birkerts' position.  While I am not sure that I completely understand all that he is trying to say, nor do I agree with what I do understand, I do think the question of Why We Read is an important one to ponder from time to time.

I guess I find three key points to this quote:

  1. Whenever we read of our own free will (verses reading for work or school or some other commitment) we are making an active choice to read rather than do anything else.  I agree, and the same holds true for any decision we make in life.  By choosing to do one thing - we are therefore choosing NOT to do many others.  I think the important component of this portion of the quote is that we INTENTIONALLY choose.  Too often, I think, decisions are made from habit or from non-decisions (I don't know what to do, so I will sit in front of the television until I decide.  THAT is a decision --- choosing to sit in front of the TV rather than do anything else is a decision, and not a very wise one, I might add *grin*).  We all are given the same 24 hours in a day; it is up to us how we choose to spend those 24 hours.
  2. Reading is a movement and a comment of sorts on the place left behind.  OK --- reading takes us to a literary world and for that brief moment in time we are indeed transported, by the author's words, from our own real world into that imaginary one.  Because what we are reading is voluntary (see  point 1), then we are choosing which literary world we want to visit, and very often, that choice is based on how we are feeling or experiencing the world in which we live.  I will buy that - but I think that is where I will stop.  I am not sure that I am making any other comment on my own life other than the subject matter of the book is of interest to me at this point in time.  I read for a variety of reasons:  sometimes to escape, sometimes to experience, sometimes to learn, and sometimes just to broaden my horizons. This leads me to ......
  3. To open a book voluntarily is at some level  to remark the insufficiency either of  one's life or one's orientation towards it.  I think this goes a bit too far.  Is this sometimes true? - yes; but this statement makes it sound as if the sole reason why those who read voluntarily do so because we are an  unsatisfied group of people and are looking for answers to help us cope.  I think I am rather satisfied with my life, thank you very much, and while I do not believe that I live in a perfect world, I am not at the point of being dissatisfied and unable to cope with the way things are.  
I think I read because, as Horace wrote in Ars Poetica ' Reading entertains and instructs'  These two components, in my opinion, are of equal weight:  yes, reading instructs and perhaps at times it can help us make sense of the real world in which we live and give us insight that will enable us to feel not quite so "insufficient" --- but reading also entertains, just as watching movies, or playing board games with family members, or playing a round of golf.  I do those other activities not because I am dissatisfied with life, but rather, to enhance life.

I am not sure that I have adequately stated my true feelings here.  I think I am hung up on the negative connotations (in my mind) of the word "insufficiencies"  Perhaps my interpretation of that word is not how the author intended.

So let me leave you with someone who is far more eloquent than myself.  C. S. Lewis wrote about the Literary vs the Unliterary Man in one of his essays in An Experiment in Criticism.  I have paraphrased this to suit my purposes, as I use this quote each year at back-to-school night for my British Literature students and parents:

Unliterary Man:  sees no point in reading anything more than once
Literary man:  looks forward to re-reading an old favorite – like a long, lost friend
Unliterary man:  will turn to reading as a last resort – nothing else to do
Literary man:  always looking for leisure time and silence in which to read

Unliterary man:  read only for the plot – totally ignores style or sound
Literary man:  is just as interested in how the author said it – as he is in what was said

Unliterary man:  rarely affected by a literary work
Literary man:  reads to improve himself – develop potentialities – become more complete

I strive to be a literary man.


  1. Reading isn't turning away from life but making it fuller. Books force us to intentionally observe circumstances and emotions we sometimes avoid.

  2. Well...You had alot to say on the matter, didn't you? Simple answer, I like it. :) Here's Mine

  3. I love the comparisons to the literary and non-literary man.

    I agree, the word "insufficiency" in Sven Birkerts’ quote bothered me.

  4. This was the first time I had seen this particular quote as well. You summed everything up brilliantly. My BTT:

  5. I definitely understood your comparisons more than I did the passage at the top. I am definitely heading in the literary path.

  6. I agree, Molly. The fact that I love to read isn't at all a statement about the insufficiency of my life! I have a wonderful life, and reading enhances my enjoyment of life as a whole. It opens up my mind to new ideas and thoughts and that is such an exhilarating thing. Reading is also entertaining and fun. I don't subscribe to any interpretation that posits that I enjoy entertainment, fun and new ideas because my life or perspective on life is insufficient or inadequate!

  7. Great post, Molly and enjoyed reading it. The quote is definitely an attention grabber. However, I think it was taken out of context. The link to the article in on my blog. My response was different as well.

  8. Molly - I love your answer. You spent a lot more time than I did breaking down the quote. I focused on the final sentence, got angry and wrote from that. I too am striving (proudly I might add) to be a literary (wo)man!

  9. great thoughts!

    that quote has a lot of people thinking and discussing. That's what books do!

    here's mine (short and sweet)

  10. I really don't like the quote given in the prompt. I too had to reread it a few times. I love your literary vs. nonliterary man quotes though!! They were wonderful!


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