Readers sometimes have an uncertain relationship with the act of reading. We want it to be good for us—we want there to be some moral/mental/spiritual justification for the fact that we spend our leisure time losing ourselves in someone else’s words.

Couldn’t you argue, after all, that reading encourages empathy? And we could all use a little more empathy with the way things are going these days, which feel more and more like Hal Lindsey’s wet dream of the apocalypse.

Or, more selfishly, maybe reading just makes us happier. And if the pursuit of happiness is fundamental to the American identity, then shouldn’t we as Americans be grateful that said happiness is just a short trip to the library away?

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not difficult to find reasons online to read, if you’re feeling particularly defensive about it. Maybe another question is—why feel guilty in the first place?

Maybe it comes down to a question of how we spend our time. Since we’re all going to die (spoiler alert), can we really afford to waste what precious life we still have on something frivolous? If we can’t come up with justification—say, explaining how reading poetry got us through med school—then we start feel the pressure to stop.

But any pressure in this equation can be bad. Pressuring kids to read the great works of literature in a quantitative, measurable way might be the surest way to guarantee they spend the rest of their lives hating it.

And yet… there’s something intriguing about the classics, beyond mental edification. They represent something to us, a part of ourselves and our culture and other cultures that we’re trying to grasp. We’ve all tried—and failed—to read a Classic Tome at least once in our lives. And we’ll all try it again.

There is something undeniably enticing about the great works of literature. Maybe when we ask why we should read, we’re not really just asking for justification. Maybe we’re asking a more fundamental question. As writer Jamie Leigh put it in Punchnel’s:

“Literature, along with (arguably) all forms of art, is a distinctly human legacy. It is by definition an exploration of our own humanity, one of our most important tools of communication, and a force that both creates and reflects our culture.”

 

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Photo credit: Flickr user elisavhout, used here under Creative Commons licensing.