Why Do We Read?

I sat down, as I usually do on Friday mornings, to catch up on the week’s online reading. Unlike most week’s, though, I had let my RSS feed get backed up until it had become an unwieldy mess, and, consequently, I was faced with the prospect of combing through hundreds of items or … deleting them all. Following my own advice from a few months back, I marked all as read. “Are you sure you would like to mark all items as read?” I was politely asked. Yes, yes I am.

There was, of course, a moment of hesitation. What might I miss? Was there a really brilliant piece that I might not otherwise see? Was there fodder for a blog post? Something that would fit nicely with my dissertation research? Perspectives that I needed to read in order to remain “informed”?

Maybe, maybe not. The better question that eventually came to mind was simpler and of greater significance: What was I reading for?

young_girl_readingThat old venerable guide, Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book, suggests three possible answers to that question: one may read for information, understanding, or pleasure. Heuristically speaking, that’s not a bad start. But it doesn’t work very well in digital contexts, nor, for that matter, in pre-print contexts either.

The idea of reading for information and understanding with pleasure thrown in “somewhat apologetically,” as Alan Jacobs puts it in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distractionhas a certain Age of Reason feel to it. Consider, by contrast, how the monk and scholar, Hugh of St. Victor, framed the aims of reading in the twelfth century. Hugh wrote what might be the earliest guide to reading, the Didascalicon, and quite early in the life of this blog I posted a series of excerpts from Ivan Illich’s wonderful study of Hugh and twelfth century reading technology.

According to Illich, for Hugh “the reader is one who has made himself into an exile in order to concentrate his entire attention and desire on wisdom, which thus becomes the hoped-for home.” But wisdom for Hugh was not merely knowledge applied to living well. “As with Augustine,” Illich explains,

“wisdom was for Hugh not something but someone. Wisdom in the Augustinian tradition is the second person of the Trinity, Christ . . . . The wisdom Hugh seeks is Christ himself.  Learning and, specifically, reading, are both simply forms of a search for Christ the Remedy, Christ the Example and Form which fallen humanity, which has lost it, hopes to recover. The need of fallen humanity for reunion with wisdom is central to Hugh’s thought.”

Of course, it is not all that surprising to find that, historically, the act of reading has been incorporated into larger cultural frameworks of meaning and purpose. Hugh’s understanding of reading was decidedly theological. Adler and van Doren’s vision for reading we might call democratic, both in the sense that they wanted the benefits of reading to be widely distributed and in the sense that such reading was supposed to cultivate responsible, informed citizens.

It is worth noting that these cultural shifts were not independent of developments in the available technologies of reading. For instance, Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text is concerned with understanding how twelfth century developments in the apparatus of the book and the lay out of the page were already sundering spiritual reading from scholarly reading, leading to the emergence of the university. And, of course, the printing press and, perhaps even more so, the later availability of cheap paper were pre-conditions for the age of democratic reading.

Illich, writing as the digital age was dawning, understood that “the thought of an ultimate goal of all readings is not meaningful to us.” Our motives for reading are diverse and varied, and I would hesitate to reach for a generalization that would characterize the motives of our age the way we might speak of the theological reading of the middle ages or the democratic reading of the more recent age of print. But there are a few more modest observations that we might make.

My own online reading experience is too often characterized by what Jacobs has called reading “to have read.” In the context of his discussion, Jacobs was referring to those who dutifully read through a list of “must read” books or a list of “great works” merely out of a sense of duty. In other words, they were not driven to read by the intrinsic pleasure of reading, rather they read as one does chores around the house, to be done with them. Or worse, they read in order to be the sort of people who can say that they have read certain works and cash in whatever cultural currency that may earn them.

477px-Saint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_ChampaigneI find that the phrase “reading to have read” covers a lot of the kind of reading I end up doing online. There is some vague sense that there are things I need to keep up with, things others are talking about that I should look into, things that by the very fact of their piling up in my RSS feed are asking to be read and it is a relief to go through them just as it is to get the Inbox down to zero. So on and so forth; this is nothing new.

Additionally, we might also note a variation on the theme, “reading to be seen to have read.” This kind of reading is not a function of digital texts per se, as much as it is a function of networked reading environments. This sort of reading gets sucked in to the construction of what Rob Horning has recently called the “post-authentic viral self.” You would do well to read the whole of Horning’s essay, but the gist of it for the purposes of this post is that the viral self reads in search of what will fuel the sharing metrics by which it registers its state of being. I am retweeted, therefore I am.

“One adopts a ‘viral self,’ anchored in continual demonstrations of its reach, based on ingenious appropriation and aggregation of existing content, not,” Horning explains, “in its fidelity to a static inner truth or set of tastes. It is defined by its ability to circulate, not by the content of what it circulates.”

In a much shorter, less sophisticated, but similarly insightful post, Len Kendall, sums up the motives driving the reading the viral self undertakes: “Today we’re driven less by the words on a page (or screen) inspiring thoughts in our minds, and more by how a title or topic trigger other people to validate, praise, and fight us.”

The reading of the viral self is reading in search of what can be shared, and this need not imply actual reading. Recall the joke NPR pulled off for April Fool’s Day earlier this year. They posted an article to their Facebook page titled, “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” The article generated hundreds of comments and was shared thousands of time. There was, of course, no article. Those who clicked to read the piece were immediately informed that the article was a hoax based on NPR’s sense that more than a few folks were commenting on their stories without actually taking the time to read the stories.

Of course, there is nothing particularly novel about the relationship between reading and the “self” and its presentation. There is only the question of the nature of that relationship. In the age of print, we also read, in part, so that we might be seen reading. For the bookish sorts, a bookshelf could be a kind of self-portrait; aspirational perhaps, but a self-portrait nonetheless. Even in the distant world of Hugh of St. Victor, reading and identity were intertwined.

“That which we mean today when, in ordinary conversation, we speak of the ‘self’ or the ‘individual,’ is one of the great discoveries of the twelfth century,” according to Illich.  Hugh of St. Victor, Illich continues, “wants the reader to face the page so that by the light of wisdom he shall discover his self in the mirror of the parchment.  In the page the reader will acknowledge himself not in the way others see him or by the titles or nicknames by which they call him, but by knowing himself by sight.”

All of this began with a simple straightforward question: why do I read?

My answer will not be your answer, of course. In fact, it may be that neither of us have a very good answer to that question at all, or we may find that our answer to that question evolves over time.

The point, I think, is to occasionally ask the question.

4 thoughts on “Why Do We Read?

  1. I fall into the bookish category and I completely agree with the idea of a bookshelf-as-self-portrait. I’ve actually had friends comment that perusing my books helped them understand me better. For the most part, my bookshelves reflect my love of learning and my desire to be knowledgeable about an array of subjects so there’s definitely an aspirational motive to my reading. The desire to improve and achieve is inherent in scholarship and for me reading is where I look first to expand my thinking on a topic when finding a new approach for answering my professional research questions. Connecting ideas from different sources is also what I find most satisfying so, for me at least, reading for information is largely also reading for pleasure.

    Great post!
    P.S. I adore your blog

  2. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

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