Why do we read? For pleasure? For intellectual gain? To become “cultured”? To explore the depths of human imagination and mentally push oneself out of one’s comfort zone? Clearly, each individual’s answer involves a mix of these, so the better question for this week might be: what is the best reason to read in an era when there’s so much less strenuous stuff to do?
As I’ve mentioned in a few columns, I believe the staying power of the novel in our times has a little bit to do with its inaccessibility. Books make you work. You can’t sit passively in front of a novel and become a vegetable like you can with Netflix (as I did this past week when I came down with mono). I’m drawn to reading as a pastime precisely because I don’t want to use up all of my spare time being entertained in a way that merely comforts, pleasures and amuses me. I often find a novel to be much more of an adventure than a television show or a video game because it contains a requisite amount of struggle needed to make the journey worthwhile in the end. The intellectual effort it asks of you allows the story to play you in far different ways than other media can, sucking you in and making you care and imagine in a far less passive way than watching could ever entail.
The author Zadie Smith once wrote, “What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives.” It is this idea, that literature is meant to be a waking force in our lives rather than the lulling and background noise that so much other art, storytelling and entertainment has become, that compels me to pick up a book.
When I had mono this past week, I was a sloth. It was all for good reason, since for much of the week I couldn’t even properly manage sleeping, eating and swallowing food in a comfortable way. As many of us tend do in this kind of situation, I became a vegetable, and watched television and played video games for hours on end. This kept me amused and sane throughout my sickly experience, but at the end of the week, I had a hollow sort of feeling in my stomach that wasn’t entirely the result of being weeks behind on schoolwork. What crushed me the most about my week in bed was the lack of energy and enthusiasm that infected me. It prevented me from being my normal self, an essential part of which is feeling energetic and excited about reading, both for my classes and otherwise. That semi-consciousness and overall inability to keep up the day-to-day fight of intellectually engaging with life made me feel like a shallower, less worthy person. I view it as a kind of hangover from time spent gratifying only immediate needs and living life as a lazy daze rather than the grand adventure and learning process it should be.
There are many specific reasons to read, be it for intellectual gain, for fun, for some bizarrely defined sense of cultural approval or to explore the mysterious contents of another human being’s head for a few hours. One of the best ways to craft reading list to divvy it up between books that you’d like to read for vastly different reasons, and include everything from recent Pulitzer-winners to young adult novels that just seem like they’d be a hoot to read.
Book of the week: “Brave New World” (1932) by Aldous Huxley.
Kevin Criscione is a sophomore majoring in English. He can be reached at Kevin.Criscione@tufts.edu