Why We Read

“As a reader, I have often felt the magic of literature, that sudden internal shiver while reading a novel, that glorious shock of mutuality, a sense of wonder that a stranger’s words could make me feel less alone in the world.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In our first post of this year, we explained why we wanted to recapture old and forgotten ideas, including what we called liberatory practices, which include reading, thinking and listening. 

Reading demands our utmost concentration and attention. And in today’s world, where our attention has become a commodity, and where all manners of digital tools are competing for our attention, reading may indeed be a form of resistance. 

When we speak of reading, we do not mean reading the news. While being informed is important, research increasingly shows that the news has a negative impact on our health; it is bad for our immune system, it’s addictive, it increases cognitive errors, it inhibits thinking, and kills creativity.

What we are speaking about is reading Books: those wondrous bodies of printed words, that contain worlds, our humanity, our shared consciousness, our imagination. Jorge Luis Borges said that reading a book was “no less an experience than travelling or falling in love.” Books are, in fact, magic, as Hermann Hesse wrote. 

While reading a book may be a form of escapism, it is much more than that. Books are an invitation; an invitation to slow down, to quiet the noise. Books are tactile, rhythmic, they are an invitation into new or imaginary worlds, and a way for us to encounter the unknown. 

Books give a sense of place, they help us understand who we are and who others are. In ‘A Letter to Borges,’ Susan Sontag wrote that books are “a way of being fully human.” Reading reminds us of our complexity and our contradictions.

And while the act of reading may be a solitary practice and every book is different to each reader, we all recognise ourselves – and our shared humanity – in books; “[a] book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships,” Borges wrote. 

Unfortunately, in our attention economy, where politicians, corporations, ideological groups, and even social causes are all competing for our attention through simplistic messages and binary thinking, picking up a book can seem like a struggle; many of us believe we no longer have the time to read.  

This is dangerous. Chimananda Ngozi Adichie recently spoke about how we are living in “settled ideological tribes” where we no longer need to have real discussions because our positions are always assumed. And this, she warns, leads many to no longer ask questions for fear of asking the wrong one, which, in turn, leads to what she calls “an exquisite kind of self-censorship.” 

Add that to the growing phenomenon in the publishing world of sensitivity readers, people, she explains, whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words. 

Furthermore, with the rise in book banning, including in countries like the US, literature is in peril. Yet, for Ngozi Adichie, it is the art form that most teaches us empathy. And "if nothing changes,” she says, “the next generation will read us and wonder, how did they manage to stop being human? How were they so lacking in contradiction and complexity? How did they banish all their shadows?” 

While the irony of banning books means more people will seek them, it should lead us to wonder: what masterpieces of literature would not even get published today? And if what we read is increasingly cleansed of our complexities and contradictions, what is next?


In ‘The Magic of Books,’ written almost a hundred years ago, Hesse said “we need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority. For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal.”

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

Meet the Artists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (born in 1977) is a Nigerian writer whose works include novels, short stories and nonfiction. Her book-length essay We Should All Be Feminists (2014) which was distributed to every 16-year old in Sweden helped start new conversations about gender and feminism globally. Her 2009 Ted Talk ‘The danger of a single story’ has been viewed over 33 million times. In it she warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986) was an Argentine author who exerted a strong influence on the direction of literary fiction through his genre-bending metafictions, essays, and poetry. He wrote his first story at age seven and, at nine, saw his own Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" published in a Buenos Aires newspaper. He was a founder, and principal practitioner, of postmodernist literature, a movement in which literature distances itself from life situations in favour of reflection on the creative process and critical self-examination. Borges became a writer, one with a unique style, critics were forced to coin a new word—Borgesian—to capture the magical world he invented.

Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962) was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. His best-known works include Francis of Assisi, Demian, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game, each of which explores an individual's search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Susan Sontag
(1933 – 2004) was an American writer, philosopher, and political activist.[2] Sontag was active in writing and speaking about, or travelling to, areas of conflict, including during the Vietnam War and the Siege of Sarajevo. She wrote extensively about photography, culture and media, AIDS and illness, human rights, and leftist ideology. Her essays and speeches drew controversy, and she has been described as "one of the most influential critics of her generation."

[sources: Wikipedia, The Poetry Foundation]

References

‘News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier,’ Rolf Dobelli, The Guardian, 12 April 2013.

Letter to Borges: Susan Sontag on Books, Self-Transcendence, and Reading in the Age of Screens, The Marginalian, by Maria Popova.

The BBC Reith Lectures: Freedom of Speech, with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. BBC Radio 4, November 2022.  (You can listen on various podcast platforms, or download the full speech here in pdf).

‘Why we should read books, not only tweets – Chimamanda Adichie,’ Wise Channel on youtube.

‘The Timeless Magic of the Book in the Age of Technology: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will,’ The Marginalian, by Maria Popova.

Further reading

A Velocity of Being: Letters to A Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick, 2017.

‘When Stories Take Us Places,’ by Irene Caselli in What Lies Beneath: Movement. Read online or download a copy here

‘Jorge Luis Borges, In-depth’ Interview with Joaquin Soler Serrano, September 8, 1976. Restored and with English subtitles. 

Apr 1, 2021

Earth as our Human Condition

“Art can die; what matters is that it scatters seeds on the ground … we shouldn’t care whether it remains as it is, but rather whether it sets the germs of growth, whether it sows seeds from which other things will spring.”— Joan Miró

Feb 4, 2022

Seeking Simplicity

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move the opposite direction.”— E. F. Schumacher

Apr 14, 2023

Be Compost, My Friend

“What do you do when the highway’s famished? When it eats people? When soldiers are walking on the streets beating people up, what do you do? Where do you go when going forward is no longer possible? I think you steal through cracks. I think you do what fugitives do. I think you do what the slaves on slave ships did when they were dominated by colonial powers. You learn to fall down and sit still and await the crossroads. You learn to listen. You learn to compost yourself.” — Bayo Akomolafe

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