Why do human beings read? What’s the point?
My six year old announced to his grandmother one day that “all Mom and Dad ever do is work and read.”
Aside from a few other basic activities like eating and sleeping, he isn’t too far off the mark.
We read a lot.
Our house is full of books and comfy chairs in which to read them. Sometimes I look around at the stacks and stacks that litter the nooks and crannies of my home and I wonder if it’s a good thing to have so many books. I wonder if spending most of my spare time on reading, and spending almost all my spare change on books is wise. Books are just words strung together, printed on paper, glued and bound up for us to read. Why have them at all? Why spend precious time reading them? Am I wasting my life on a hobby that won’t matter in the end?
Before I lost myself in a spiral of whys and whatfors, I came upon a wonderful little book by C. S. Lewis (one of my favorite writers). He asked the same question another way;
“What then is the good of—what is even the defense for—occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person?”*
A few years ago, knee deep in the waters of an English Literature degree, I would have answered that humans read to learn the truth about the world; we read to be instructed; we read to aid in the development of our culture; we read to understand history. I am not entirely certain that this is still not the case, but Mr. Lewis rejects these goals as the true value of good literature. In his book An Experiment in Criticism he gives the best answer that he has found as this.
“We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selective mess peculiar to himself.”*
The whole point and value of books, Lewis argues, is that they “admits us to experiences other than our own.” This quote came from the last chapter of his short book on literary criticism. In it he approaches the whole process of judging good books from bad books from an entirely different direction. I highly recommend your book nerds and literature junkies to check it out.
After finishing the book, I was pushed beyond the mantra of “read good books” to the deeper question of “why read at all?” My first response to Lewis was a resounding “Yes, this is why I read!”
But a day later I began to ask why again.
Why is this property of becoming more than ourselves the value of books, and specifically good literature? Why do human beings crave to “see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own?”*
The great beauty and terrible power of a story is that once it gets inside you, it has the tremendous potential, not only to admit you to to an experience wider than your own tiny world, but to change who you are. Books and stories are not the only things that shape the human soul; I believe this power to alter the human experience is also found in photography, dance, music, painting, and poetry (to name a few). Since I am not a photographer, dancer, musician, or a poet, I am confined to that of reader. As a reader I can testify that stories are some of the most powerful influences on the human experience.
Of the hundreds of books I have read, only nine (thus far) stand out as a testimony to the reality of this change a story can work in a person. Countless others have left small pebbles of wisdom, and insight behind, but these nine were different. After reading each one, I knew they had done something to me. I could not go back to who I was before I read them. Sometimes I could identify exactly how the book had changed me, but mostly I did not know exactly what had happened to me; only that something had happened. These nine books are like stones, a monument to my own personal journey as a reading human being. They are the reason I read.
But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
-C. S. Lewis
ps. to see the list of nine books, click here.
All quotes in this essay are from *An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis. 1961. Cambridge University Press.