A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Julian Davies’ Crow mellow. It’s an enjoyable and at times provocative read. I’d love to share many descriptions and scenes from it but, since this is a reader’s blog, I’ve decided to share some thoughts relevant to my focus made by the main character, poet Phil Day. Much of the discussion in the novel concerns the creation and criticism of art, but here Phil is considering its consumption, specifically in this case, reading:
Reading, writing. If writing was a perplexing activity, reading had to be somewhat puzzling. What could be more passive? He was more of a reader than most, an absorber of information on trust, on a whim and a wish. And what did he believe he was getting from the activity? Entertainment? Well, of a sort, but that was never enough. Betterment? He wasn’t so benighted a romantic as to believe anyone was improved by books. If it was information, wasn’t it a bloodless sort of knowledge? What else then? No, the most he hoped from reading were some silent conversations. If the authors were long dead, the interaction seemed more animated. This was a simple paradox simply to be enjoyed.
I was fascinated by this, because sometimes I wonder myself about whether this activity I so love is too passive. Should I be getting out there instead and doing something? There’s plenty to do – both around the house and outside it in the service of others. Of course, being a reader, I argue with myself that it’s not too passive, but on what grounds? Entertainment goes only so far – and anyhow, I’m not sure that I read specifically for entertainment, though reading is something I enjoy. And information is part of it, but less so – particularly if we are talking facts – from reading fiction. But betterment? This is a good one because there has been quite a bit of discussion recently about the value of reading.
In 2013 Huffington Post listed, with some supporting evidence, “7 Unconventional Reasons Why You Absolutely Should Be Reading Books” which include things like improved empathy and staving off Alzheimer’s. Last year, several newspapers reported on research published in Science which argued that “that social skills are improved by reading fiction – specifically high-end stuff*, the 19th-century Russians, the European modernists, the contemporary prestige names … [that] those who read extracts from literary novels, and then took tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, did significantly better than other subjects who read serious nonfiction or genre fiction.” Science writer, Christian Jarrett, at the wired.com, though, does put some breaks on claims that reading changes our brains.
So, I’m sort of with Phil. I hope reading helps stave off dementia (which is “betterment” for me) and I’m romantic enough to hope that reading might improve our ability to empathise, but I don’t think “betterment” is the main reason I read. Conversation, however, is another thing – silent conversation with the author, sometimes conveyed via marginalia, and conversation with other readers about what I’ve read. These conversations challenge my intellect. But there are other reasons I read too. I read to escape into other worlds, both near to and far from my own, and I read for the emotional hit – to laugh, to cry, to feel all sorts of emotions (although I try to avoid fear!!) What all these add up to in the end is something very simple: I read because it gives me pleasure.
I’ve titled the post “Julian Davies on reading” but it’s his character Phil Day speaking. Is this what Davies thinks too? Possibly, though Crow mellow being the sort of satire it is, I think all we can assume is that Davies is throwing some ideas out there and that, since these ideas are coming from Phil, we should give them particular consideration.
And now, you know what I’m going to ask: Why do you read?
* The high-end literary word used by the Sydney Morning Herald writer!