In Defense of Reading

When I was a teenager, I consumed books. It wasn’t unusual for me to read two or three a week, depending on their length. I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead over a two-week Christmas break. I read Their Eyes Were Watching God over a weekend. An Animorphs book was an afternoon diversion.

I could look at a page count and guess how many days or hours it would take me to read the book. When the school librarian weeded the collection, she let me comb through the boxes and take what I wanted, as long as I didn’t rat her out to the administration.

Then college happened and it all changed.

In high school, teachers gave me assigned reading, so it couldn’t have been because of literature classes. Maybe it was because all my other coursework was finally at a level that challenged me. I went from coasting through most classes, only studying for my math and languages, to suddenly having to study for every class and actually worrying about whether I would pass.

I also suddenly had friends and a social life. Yes, I had people I was friendly with in high school but no one I would call a best friend. Certainly none of them knew what I endured at home. Suddenly, I had people in my life who weren’t related to me that cared about my well-being. I started dating and realizing all those secret fantasies about giving and receiving physical affection.

Also, the college library didn’t offer much popular fiction. I tried to get a public library card but the librarian told me I needed a permanent address in the county. And I could not afford to buy books at the local bookstores.

Perhaps there was a psychological element to it, as well. In my childhood and teen years, I read to escape. Escape drug-addicted parents (one of whom was also an alcoholic) and their battles that left holes in the walls and my brother and I cowering under our beds. Escape classes that bored me or frustrated me for reasons I couldn’t articulate (it wasn’t until a year ago that I learned I have dyscalculia). Escape bullies and loneliness and a body whose changes I couldn’t fathom. Books were a haven. In books, life made sense and the good people always won and the bad guy always got his just desserts.

Going to college meant leaving a lot of that behind. I no longer needed to read to escape.

All these elements came together to derail what had been a prolific reading habit. College was over a decade ago but I still struggle to read a book a month. I don’t need to read to escape anymore, so what is the point? Why continue trying to read? Why surround myself with shelves crammed with books that I hope to one day read?

First of all, because I still love it. I may no longer need to read for escape or comfort. And I may spend way too much time online, which certainly cuts into reading time. But I still love stories. I still love being told stories and immersing myself into another world.

Secondly, because I’m a writer. I wouldn’t say most of what I read directly impacts whatever I’m writing. That’s not why I’m even reading. I read to see how another writer tells a story. I read to see how someone else constructs a scene or builds suspense or creates a world. I read because I acknowledge that it’s best if you never stop learning. I read because I’m not so arrogant to say that I can’t write better.

This reason, though, can be a bit of a problem, because it does make me a picky reader. I have “DNF” books solely because I couldn’t stop pulling apart a writer’s style. Or, the writer had a habit which kept throwing me out of the story because I couldn’t stop noticing it.

Yet, I can’t stop trying to read. I want to recapture those childhood days where I opened a book in the morning and didn’t close it until the evening, startled by the passage of time. In fact, it’s my hope to one day give that gift to another reader. And I can’t help but to feel that redeveloping a reading habit will help me in that endeavor.

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