Why do you read?

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about different reasons for reading

Recently, I was asked on Facebook to suggest some books for a person to read. He said that apparently I read a lot, and therefore would like to see some of my suggestions. I thought about replying directly with a list of some of my favorite books, but even that task would be somewhat daunting. Then it dawned on me that I cannot really make a suggested reading list until I know a persons motivation for reading.

What are my favorite books? The reason that question is tough for me is that I read for many different reasons, and while I may read a great book, for a particular reason, it may not even mean that I even enjoyed the book, or that I would recommend it to someone else. Reading, after all, is an intensely personal activity – and it is one reason that a persons library reading habits should be protected by privacy laws.

So before I can even begin to think about a reading list, I must first examine reasons for reading. I read for the following reasons:

1. To learn things. First of all, I am a learner, a student, someone who is addicted to learning. I learn for the fun and for the pleasure of learning. My interests are varied and wide in this area. I am not just talking about how-to manuals such as How to make hand cut dovetails, or how to use adobe Photoshop. I read philosophy, psychology, math, science, music, art. history, archeology, and yes the ubiquitous how-to books as well. I have recently been reading books about celestial navigation – it is a fascinating subject, and one that I have nearly no hopes of ever being able to use in real life. But to think that there are highways mapped out in the sky is intriguing.

2. To be challenged. Reading provides one with an excellent chance to step outside of ones narrowly defined shell of comfort, and to confront a wide world of strange, and different ideas. Rousseau, Locke, Sartre, Russell, Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and others all form an interesting chorus through which one may wish to set about attempting to harmonize ideas. I like to do the following: pick a writer. Read about the writers life. Read their seminal works. This becomes really important for people such as Wittgenstein whose philosophy was so closely intertwined with their life experiences. To understand the writing it is important to understand the person. At times this also extends to reading a history book or two about the times in which the person lived, although a good biography will bring in some of that type of information.

3. To be inspired. Reading literary friction is a great way to be inspired. Reading biographies of great people is also a great way to be inspired.

4. To be entertained. Reading is a great way to be entertained, to escape from the drudgeries of ones day to day life. It is a great way to see new places, to experience new things, and to walk in the shoes of another character for a few hours. This entertainment can be pure escapist, or it can also teach, challenge, and inspire while also entertaining. If it does that, then it is great literature.

So why do you read? In the next few days I will talk about books that I have read in each of the above categories. In the meantime, if you want something fun to read, try “The Butcherbird” by Geoffrey Cousins an Australian writer. It is a fun, fast paced book set in Sydney (one of my favorite cities in the world).

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