The first thing I notice about Hannah are her eyes.
They’re wide and bright, with a warm, approachable glint. It takes me a moment to pinpoint their color: light grey with specks of gold. Unusual and arrestingly beautiful. The second thing I notice is the book she’s holding.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.
“My book club is reading that next month,” I say, jutting my chin towards the paperback. Our eyes meet in the wall-to-wall mirror.
Her face lights up like a lantern. “I’m at the part where—”
“I haven’t started,” I say quickly. “I’m looking forward to it, though. I’ve heard good things.”
She smiles, covering her mouth with her hand. “It’s so good.”
Hannah goes back to her book. I glance at the penguin-shaped timer on the marble counter. Only sixteen more minutes.
“What are we talking about?” Guy asks, leaning in to check on my roots.
“We’re both reading that book I told you about,” Hannah says.
Hannah and Guy work together. They like to say that they both “do hair”: he colors, she styles.
Guy lets out a deep breath. “And you’re liking it?” It’s unclear to whom the question is directed.
“I haven’t started,” I say. As usual, I have my iPad with me and it’s open to a page of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. “But my friends all love it.”
“Her book club is reading it,” Hannah says.
“You’re in a book club?” Guy says, his eyebrows skyrocketing.
Is it that unusual to belong to a book club?
“Two,” I say. “They’re very different book clubs, though.”
“Which one is reading this book?” Hannah asks.
“The GBC,” I tell her, purposefully using the acronym. I love The Girly Book Club, but I am unapologetically unimpressed by their name. “It’s the largest book club in the world—or at least I think it is. We meet at the last Tuesday of every month. We’re reading Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley. You should come.”
“And everyone reads the book?” Guy asks, his mouth agape. He looks like I just told him that I go on a monthly expedition to Mars.
“Most of us do,” I say. “But some people don’t, and no one really cares. It’s very easygoing. We drink wine and chat about all sorts of things. It’s where I met my best friends.”
“And the other book club?” Hannah asks. I can tell that her interest is piqued.
I tell them about the book club hosted by the International Festival of Authors. This month, we’re reading Smile by Roddy Doyle.
“It’s a completely different scene,” I say.
Unlike the GBC, the IFOA book club is a very serious gathering: we convene at a conference room and participate in a discussion led by a notorious author. Members annotate their books. Heated debates are not uncommon. Needless to say, not a drop of alcohol is served.
“Gosh, does that mean you read, what, two books a month?” Guy asks.
In truth, I read a lot more than that. But I decide to keep that to myself, as Guy is already looking at me like I’m a giant panda at the zoo.
“Reading is like therapy to me,” Hannah says. “Almost like a kind of meditation.”
I knew I liked her. “That’s exactly how I feel,” I say, beaming. It’s always nice to meet a fellow book lover.
Guy shrugs. “I don’t get it.”
He goes on to explain that he enjoys reading the paper, and that every year he finds one or two books he likes, usually nonfiction or a mystery. And, being a hairdresser, he reads a lot about his work: new techniques, trends, etc. But he doesn’t understand the hype surrounding books or what he refers to as “the cult of reading.”
“It’s like a lifestyle to some people,” he says, laughing. “I have friends who literally count the days till some book comes out.”
“I’m the same way,” Hannah and I say, practically in unison.
And that’s when a memory unfolds: not too long ago, my husband and I had a meeting with our accountant, Tom. He asked about my heretical career move (lawyer turned aspiring author) and I explained that being a writer has always been a dream of mine. I’ve always loved to read, I told him. As a kid, I would read at least four books a month.
Like Guy, Tom didn’t understand how I could spend so much of my free time reading.
“It’s a millennial men thing,” Hannah tells me, once Guy is out of earshot. “They think they already know everything, so they don’t read.”
Her statement gives me pause.
I think about how the IFOA book club has about 15 people and only two of them are men.
I think of the celebrities who host online book clubs (Reese Witherspoon, Oprah, Emma Watson, among others) and how none of them are men. (Does anyone know of a male-led celebrity book club? If so, please let me know!)
I think about how the women to men ratio at my local library seems to be 5:1.
And so I use the next ten minutes to conduct an informal online research on the matter (aka “I Googled it”). The results: there are dozens of seemingly reputable recent studies indicating that women do, in fact, read more than men. A lot more.
Still, I’m a skeptic. So I spend the next few days conducting an unofficial poll among my friends and family. All in all, I must’ve quizzed over sixty people from seven different countries, thirty men, thirty women. And, across the board, the women read more than the men.
“That’s fascinating,” Camilla says, when I tell her about my informal analysis. “Why do you think that is?”
“Because we like to read,” I say. A simplistic non-answer, but I couldn’t find a reason.
“But why?” she asks, giving me a knowing smile.
(Camilla is one of those people who is always one step ahead of everyone else.)
“Why do women like to read?” I ask, confused.
“Why do women read,” she says. “I think that’s the real question you should be looking into.”
She’s right, I realize.
I pose the question to the women I know, both on social media (Facebook and Twitter) and in person (I talk to my friends, my book club members, my neighbors).
I ask women of all ages: Why do you read?
Two hours later, my inbox is flooded with dozens of direct messages. Women of all ages, of all backgrounds, from all over the world, were kind enough to share their thoughts with me. In two weeks, I had more answers than I could count. Some were funny, others were sad. Some were simple, others were quite complex.
All of them were inspiring.
Below are quotes from some of these formidable women*:
“It started as a sort of escape. I was different than most of my classmates as a child and reading opened up new worlds for me to explore. But it’s become about so much more than just that. Reading makes me feel things I don’t always feel in real life and it also allows me to connect in a stronger way with the people I’ve come to know in real life.”
“I read because my mother couldn’t read anything other than her name, and her mother couldn’t read anything at all. I was the first girl to learn how to read in my family. I never take that for granted.”
“One person said you read to discover you are not alone. I agree.”
“Most of the time I read to feel inspired. To find my way back to myself or to find myself on someone else’s words. A missing piece of me. And sometimes…I read to exercise my brain or to escape some unpleasant situation I can’t get out of my head.”
“Because if I didn’t read my mind [would] wither away.”
“Because it’s magic.”
“To explore. To get out of my head and into someone else’s head.”
“For many reasons, but now—most of all—for my daughter. I struggle with depression and reading helps me cope. I don’t want her to grow up with a depressed mother.”
“The main reason is to learn. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? I love to learn, but I love the stories, too. Books allow you to be whoever you want to be. Visit places…”
“I read because one life isn’t enough, one dream isn’t enough, one point of view is never enough.”
“When I read, I’m a witch who is learning how to control her powers. I’m a pilot fighting a war I don’t believe in. A hamster living in a third-grade classroom. When I don’t read, I’m just me.”
“You can’t really know what someone else is going through. What they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. Unless you read.”
“I read to escape, to lose reality and transport myself into the lives and worlds of the characters. I read because it makes me feel more, more love, more sadness, more hope, more despair. I read to learn, to know more.”
“I’m an introvert. Social situations, being around people…it all gives me major anxiety. But I’m also terrified of being lonely. Reading is the perfect solution: I get to spend my evenings with all these different people without actually having to be with them.”
“Because reading is the cure for ignorance.”
“To escape, to learn, to have some fun…It is just something I have always done, and I cannot imagine not reading…”
“I read because if I didn’t, I’d be lonely. And I live in a house with four people, two cats, and one iguana.”
Clearly, there is no universal answer to the question, Why do women read? But I did find common themes in the answers I received. Education, escape, enlightenment, empathy—to list a few.
But most of all: connection.
Women read because they’ve figured out that books are an invisible thread connecting us all—not just women, but the human race. Women read because reading allows them to bond, to connect. To someone else, to a dream, to ourselves.
I can only hope that men will catch on.
* = When requested, names were altered. Some answers were translated into English.