Still plugging my way through NaNoWriMo (so far on track, by the way, thanks for asking), so it’s another shorter post this week! It follows up nicely to last week’s post on Neil Gaiman’s opinion on the value of reading, actually. Sure, why not fight this argument out some more? We all know reading is valuable, but it’s ironically hard to put into words why.
The value of fiction, Gaiman says, is – it’s a gateway drug to reading, and a way to build empathy skills. Now, here’s another perspective on reading from Mark O’Connell, who argues against using the ‘empathy’ argument too much. Don’t tie reading straight to making you a better person, O’Connell argues, as if reading a chunk of the work of some approved literary genius every day would eventually cause your interpersonal skills to go off the charts. Readers love hearing about scientific studies that ‘prove’ reading does actually increase empathy. But even if there was no noticeable, objective, ‘scientific’ proof that reading made you a better person, would it still be worth doing?
It would be, O’Connell argues.
“I don’t know whether all those boxes full of books have made me any kind of better person; I don’t know whether they’ve made me kinder and more perceptive, or whether they’ve made me more introspective and detached and self-absorbed. Most likely it’s some combination of all these characteristic, perhaps canceling each other out. But I do know that I wouldn’t want to be without those books or my having read them, and that their importance to me is mostly unrelated to any power they might have to make me a more considerate person.”
Here’s where I land as well. I think I am more empathetic because I read. I was never very good at reading other people’s emotions, but books have provided me a way to see inside of other people’s heads. Still, that truly is not the first reason I read. That’s not the first thing I think of when people ask me why I like books. It’s more like a side benefit.
So what is the right answer to the question, why read? Maybe there isn’t one. An answer that can easily encompass everything reading actually means to us readers, and that can actually communicate to non-readers and convince them of reading’s value – well, maybe translating that into a couple sentences, a paragraph, or even a whole article is just too much to ask.