Why Do You Read? “In Each of Us, There Seemed to be One Core Need.”

Author Pamela Paul is editor of The New York Times Book Review.

Why do you read?

This was asked of a group of hard-core book people. Most of us were literary agents, English teachers, editors, or authors. We should have known the answer more or less by heart. Yet each of us looked slightly dumbstruck, as if we’d been forced to gaze inward and justify our very existence on the spot. It was obvious. Why hadn’t anyone thought to ask this question before? We paused to think. Then we went around the table and took turns giving answers.

“I read for sheer entertainment.”

“I read to learn.”

“I read to make sense of the world.”

“I read to find out something new.”

“I read to escape.”

“I read because it makes me happy.”

“I read for discovery.”

For each of us, there seemed to be one core need that drove us to read on. But it was more complicated than that, as the ensuing conversation soon revealed. Everyone experiences most of these urges at different moments, or during certain periods of their lives, which is why most good readers read widely, even if they tend to go deep into one genre or another.

And one’s primary reason for reading can shift over time, sometimes quite suddenly. A death, a divorce, an empty nest, a health crisis–these kinds of life changes might pivot that central motivation. Not surprisingly, several people at the dinner table offered tiered answers. “I used to read because I was looking for answers, but now that I’ve reached middle-age, I fundamentally read for pure enjoyment,” one person explained. “I’m no longer looking for confirmation,” another said. “I want to be challenged.”

When it was my turn, my first answer was, “I read to be transported.” It has always been this way. At base, I want to enter a world apart. To take off. Perhaps it’s that insecure desire left over from childhood—the wondering what it would be like to be someone else, some other kind of heroine, pursuing adventures more worthy and interesting than my own. Given the chance, I want to go elsewhere in time, place, perspective—whether to present-day Algeria or 1980s Montana or pre-Code Hollywood.

It’s not exactly about escape. It’s about experiencing something I would otherwise never have the chance to experience. To know what it’s like to be a merchant marine in the South Pacific precisely because I never will be a merchant marine in the South Pacific. To experience a Norwegian boyhood in the early twentieth century like Roald Dahl’s because I would otherwise never know what it meant to grow up just outside the Arctic Circle, to walk miles to get to the nearest dentist, to be beaten with a cane by a cruel headmaster. Books answer that persistent question, “What is it really like?” By putting you in the place of a character unlike yourself in a situation unlike your own, a good book forges a connection with the other. You get to know, in some way, someone you never would have otherwise known, to live some other life you yourself will never live.

—From the book My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, by Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, published in 2017 by Henry Holt and Company.

Speak Your Mind