Why do we read? Well, we find meaning through the written word, be it a poem, story or any form of writing. While this sounds obvious, it is anything but simple.
Let me put it to you this way: does a tree falling in the forest make any noise if none are there to hear it? Of course it does! The same idea could be applied to literature. Do words and book have meaning if no one is reading them? Obviously they do, but that meaning is waiting, dormant, ready to spring to life within the reader. Or perhaps you might ask the question: do readers find the same meaning from any given book?
As a writer, that is a really interesting question. Writers spend months, sometimes years, on their writing and have a clear idea of what they think it is about, what it means, but put this same writing in the hands of a reader and new life is breathed into it, life the writer could never have dreamed.
Marcel Proust said, “Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”
Reading, therefore, is an act of creation, an internal performance. Beyond the meaning intended by the writer, meaning is created through the process of reading in much the same way that music is created, not by the instrument maker, but by the musician. The writer may have done an excellent job with character, plot, setting, and an interesting turn of phrase, but the reader gets to create a whole new story! Reading is empowerment.
Literary theorist, Wolfgang Iser said, “The significance of the work…does not lie in the meaning sealed within the text, but in the fact that the meaning brings out what had been previously sealed within us….we actually participate in the text, and this means that we are caught up in the very thing we are producing. This is why we often have the impression, as we read, that we are living another life.”
If you have children, or had English teachers who banged on about their subject area, you will know the benefits of reading. You only have to Google the topic to quickly find positive reasons to read: your reading will improve; you will broaden your vocabulary, comprehension and grammar; you will be more successful in education; even your emotional and social behavior will benefit. But what the benefits of creating meaning in our lives continues into adulthood.
Author, Angela Carter said, “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.”
Apart from being satisfying entertainment to read a good book, through seeing the letters, understanding the words, comprehending the meaning and engaging your imagination, readers not only keep their brains active, but also build their ability to concentrate. Readers gain insight into new ways of living, of knew knowledge, of other cultures and the difference and similarities of these – they get to step into the shoes of others and in this way can learn tolerance, acceptance. By learning about the situations and problems of others, readers are better able to deal with those arising in their own lives because they have already had a practice run of a kind in their minds. Through reading, they get to, privately, try out new ideas and ways of thinking, developing their own confidence before turning their new found ideas onto the rest of the world. Reading also enables the reader to become more reflective and relaxed. Open Education Database offer ten things that happen in our brains when we read on their website.
And a final note for writers: reading, because of all of the things mentioned above, can improve your writing, and so, as I and many hundreds of others before me have said, writers should also be readers! As author, Jeanette Winterson said, “Writing should be personal but not insular. If we are not readers we cannot be writers. Reading widely is necessary.”
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Robeck M. and Wallace R. R., The Psychology of Reading: An Interdisciplinary Approach. 2nd ed., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Hillside, 1990.