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A book is a literary compass that has the potential to direct our thoughts and actions:

"Everything we read stimulates our mind to think, and what we think determines what we desire, and desires are the seedbed of our actions. Given this iron law of human nature--from reading to thinking, to desiring, to acting--we are shaping our destiny by the ideas we choose to have enter our minds through print." - Fr. John Hardon, S.J., The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan

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"Every soul that uplifts itself uplifts the world." --Elisabeth Leseur

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

What is Reading For?

I saw this comment on a post in someone else's blog the other day:
My theory is, at least they're reading. Who cares what they read? Just read, damn it.
If the discussion were about kids who were just learning to read, I'd be inclined to agree--there is a point in everyone's life when the best way to improve as a reader is to read as much as you can, regardless of the content (mostly--I hate Captain Underpants!). But the blog post was about reading in general, and I just can't agree with this comment. There is no point in reading for reading's sake, unless you're trying to build fluency. You either read to be entertained or to be educated.

Both kinds of reading are worthwhile, but I think too many people stop at merely being entertained (and here I must say again that reading for entertainment and reading for education are not mutually exclusive). Henry Fielding offers this comment on reading for amusement:
The present age seems pretty well agreed in an opinion, that the utmost scope and end of reading is amusement only; and such, indeed, are now the fashionable books, that a reader can propose no more than mere entertainment, and it is sometimes very well for him if he finds even this, in his studies.

Letters, however, were surely intended for a much more noble and profitable purpose than this. Writers are not, I presume, to be considered as mere jack-puddings, whose business it is only to excite laughter: this, indeed, may sometimes be intermixed and served up with graver matters, in order to titillate the palate, and to recommend wholesome food to the mind; and for this purpose it hath been used by many excellent authors: "for why," as Horace says, "should not any one promulgate truth with a smile on his countenance?" Ridicule indeed, as he again intimates, is commonly a stronger and better method of attacking vice than the severer kind of satire.

When wit and humour are introduced for such good purposes, when the agreeable is blended with the useful, then is the writer said to have succeeded in every point. Pleasantry…should be made only the vehicle of instruction; and thus romances themselves, as well as epic poems, may become worthy the perusal of the greatest of men: but when no moral, no lesson, no instruction, is conveyed to the reader, where the whole design of the composition is no more than to make us laugh, the writer comes very near to the character of a buffoon; and his admirers, if an old Latin proverb be true, deserve no great compliments to be paid to their wisdom.


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posted by Nick Senger at 1:55 PM

Comments on "What is Reading For?"


Blogger Stephen said ... (Monday, May 28, 2007 5:33:00 AM) : 

I like the quote but object to reading as a strictly didactic enterprise. Certainly as Fielding says reading can convey morals, lessons or instruction. That is part of what reading can do.

As a musician it feels reductive to me to reduce language solely to a vehicle for the transmission of morals and instruction. What is music for? What is beauty for? Sometimes it has no purpose other than itself. Gratuitious if you will.

I think that reading and language can encompass entertainment, teaching and beauty.

Words (like art) help humans make meaning out of their existence.

I understand the frustration that gives birth to "Who cares what they read? Just read, damn it." I also am not very fond of "Captain Underpants."

Recently I watched a very young person rudely reading Harry Potter during a church service. I was amused at my own ambivalence about it. Firstly, he was reading, damn it. I thought that was good. He was reading Harry Potter. I've read some of these and you could do worse but I think the Potter books (like some many contemporary blockbusters) are closer to a mediocre movie script than they are to, God forbid, Hawthorne or Stevenson or some other wholesome food for the mind. Lastly, I was witnessing the disappearance of the last vestiges of public manners and something I think Fielding would have looked on with horror. Sigh. It's never simple, heh.


Blogger Nick Senger said ... (Monday, May 28, 2007 6:26:00 AM) : 

I think that reading and language can encompass entertainment, teaching and beauty.

Thanks for the insightful comment. I was thinking of beauty as a part of being entertained, but I can see the value of separating them. They're really two separate functions.

Words (like art) help humans make meaning out of their existence.

I couldn't agree more.

Firstly, he was reading, damn it. I thought that was good.

And for a young person, any reading is good no matter the book. They're in training, so to speak. I'm not a big fan of the Harry Potter books either, but once a person has read two or three seven-hundred page books, reading Crime and Punishment doesn't seem so daunting. That's a good thing. It was rude of him to read in church, but that's a rookie mistake.


Anonymous stefanie said ... (Monday, May 28, 2007 6:52:00 AM) : 

It's a bit of a dilemma, isn't it? I love to see people reading but if they never go beyond pure fluff it makes me sad for what they are missing. I like to read books with ideas not because I want to learn but because I like to think and thinking gives me pleasure. A coworker responded recently to my answer of what I was reading, "don't you ever read anything fun?" As if thinking and fun are mutually exclusive. I did tell her though that I read "brain candy" too, but one cannot live on candy alone.


Blogger Nick Senger said ... (Tuesday, May 29, 2007 5:28:00 AM) : 

Stefanie: I like your term "brain candy." That's a new one for me, but it fits our sugar-crazy world.


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