Why People Read

Why People Read

Author James Collins has an essay over at The New York Times where he frets over not being able to remember the plot to most of the books he’s read. Then he wonders why we read books if we can’t remember what’s in them.

After reading Collins’ essay, I scanned my own bookshelves (sorry, I don’t have a Kindle or Nook—yet) to see how many books I could remember the plot. I don’t know if I have a better memory than Collins or just read more interesting books, but I could remember the basic plot and main characters for at least half of the books on my shelf. Surprisingly half that I couldn’t recall included books by some of my favorite authors. But even if I couldn’t recall the plot, I certainly remember how I felt reading pretty much every book on my shelf.

And therein lies the answer to Collins’ question. People read for the same reasons they watch TV or a movie: they want to be transported to another time, place, or world. They look for characters they can identify with. It’s not Elvis Cole or Bilbo Baggins going off to save the day—it’s the reader himself going on these fantastic journeys. They don’t read to remember the plot, they read to escape reality for a short time.

Ironically Collins misses this very point in his essay—despite spending the first two paragraphs recalling how reading Allen Weinstien’s Perjury made him want to read all day instead of boating and fishing while on a summer vacation in New Hampshire. Instead he focuses on the “aesthetic and literary pleasure” and knowledge one gains by reading. This may be something English professors and their students may open a book for but most people just want something that will take them somewhere else.

The books that I can recall the plot and characters the best are the ones that resonated with me most. Growing up I loved reading Batman comics because Batman generally did everything without the help of others or super powers. It was something my loner teenage self could relate to. Those same loner feelings are what draws me to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Pleasant childhood memories of summer and baseball is why I enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Summerland and David Horowitz’s autobiography Radical Son struck a chord politically.

Though Collins never figures out why people read, at least he doesn’t feel that time spent reading was a waste of time. But since he’s a writer, Collins better figure out why people read if he wants to have a shot at becoming successful.