For Entertainment, Escape, and Education: Why We Read

As a child, I loved to read. I was known by my teachers, peers, and the school librarian as the weird kid who always had her nose in a book. This love for books and reading continued throughout high school and my teen years. When I entered university, picked my subjects and majors, and discovered that all of the units I was studying involved weekly “readings,” I thought I was set. I loved reading, didn’t I?

Then I realised I didn’t love all kinds of reading. Certain novels, yes. Non-fiction books on topics that interested me, yes. Article and essays that were well-written, engaging and about subjects that I was curious about, yes. But academic papers that are long, dense, written about heavy ideas and sometimes (often) in a difficult-to-understand language? Not so much. Turns I didn’t unconditionally love reading after all. In fact, earlier this year as I was packing up my PhD stuff to move from Australia to the US, I found an old paper where I had written, “I started reading this and then gave up.”

So why do we read? Some of us read because we have to, as part of our studies or our jobs, and sometimes that is reading just because it is necessary. But what about the kind of reading people do when they don’t have to? What do people mean when they say they love reading? I explored these questions in my PhD research, with mostly unsurprising results. People read for a number of reasons: to be entertained, to learn, to escape, to bond with their kids. One person I interviewed said that she would read books she normally wouldn’t enjoy if she were trying to impress a guy. Another reader told me she asked her mother why she read Mills and Boon novels:

She said, ‘Because I don’t like soap operas, I like reading, but I was raising three kids and working and running a house and doing all those other things, and you don’t always have time. But I needed to be reading, and it made me feel good, nothing bad was going to happen that was insurmountable, you’re always going to be left with a happy feeling’. It was the whole predictable, formulaic experience, but you knew what you were getting.

This experience of using reading as “time out” is echoed by another library user who was interviewed, who said that her house was noisy and frantic, and reading was her escape. She shared:

I leave a book in the bathroom [laughs]… And I go in there and hide from the kids. So we’ve got a little rack on the side of the vanity, and I just put my book in there.  [laughs] And so I might duck in there and you know, what would normally take a minute or two, I’ll sit for five minutes and read.

Another main reason for reading is learning and education, something that many of the men I interviewed said were their main reasons for reading. This is consistent with previous research on cultural consumption patterns that suggests men have greater interest in factual and documentary reading while women express a greater preference for literary or aesthetic types of reading. One male library user interviewed went as far as to say non-fiction was the only kind of reading that was worthwhile, and the only kind of reading that you can learn from.

There was one reason for reading that all these library users had in common that I imagine we can all relate to: for enjoyment. They read because they enjoyed escaping into a great novel, or because they enjoyed learning about a new hobby, or because they enjoyed engaging with complex ideas and beautiful language. One library user who was a self-described “language junkie” even said, “if I don’t read literary fiction each day, then I feel like it’s a waste of a day.” So why do we read? Because we want to. Because we enjoy it. And because there is pleasure to be derived from learning new things, exploring new worlds, and savouring beautiful language.

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