Why We Read


If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.
Franz Kafka, private letter


I don't agree with Kafka, or with George Steiner's argument made in To Civilize Our Gentlemen, the essay where I first met this quote. I think the idea of books as fists is a writer's vanity. And, in any case, it is horribly reductive. Sometimes, what we most need is for the fists to stop.

My favourite stories are the ones that comfort me. Whether it's John Sandford's Prey series (with its two dimensional male hero who always saves the day) or James Herndon's The Way it Supoze To Be (with its three dimensional male hero who does the right thing and fails, but is blameless in that failure), the books I read and re-read tell me steadying, encouraging stories. That's also true of most of the music and video I enjoy, and the websites I visit. It doesn't matter if they are true or transformative or environmentally friendly. I don't read books to save the earth. I read to save me.

These are important things, these comforts. I haven't a Western Catholic's faith in institutions, or a Western Protestant's faith in faith, much less a new-agey belief in the guiding hand of the Earth or universe or Something Bigger. I suppose it comes of reading history, of taking history seriously, this expectation that it's not going to end well. I tell my friends it's my Danish origins. Drydens reach back through the later English to the low-land Scots (the bad guys in that Mel Gibson movie) and, before that, to the Danes of the Germanic coast. But I mostly tell them that because I like the narrative I picked up from a Tolkien essay. I'm no more Danish than a Tim Horton's doughnut. I'm from the Maritimes, from late 20th century East-coast Canada.

Still and all, I expect it's not going to end well, and I do want my small comforts, my distractions from apocalypse, along the way.




Though it's been many years, and the fever is no longer on her, I knew an adult literacy learner who read and read hard just to stay off drugs. This person wrote as well - page after winding page. But it was the reading that got them through the long nights, until daytime demands returned to distract their mind and body.

Since this learner was a weak reader, they struggled to find things to read (and struggled harder to find enjoyable things to read). This was back in the day before I knew of PRACE and most of the other resources I access now. Out of desperation, I wrote a lot of hacky pieces for her. They weren't much good, those stories, though they helped me get ready to write things like the Liz Tracy books.

Anyway. I'm not going to talk any more about this, because I don't want to stray into private territory.

I just wanted to say, to remember, that there are lots of reasons a person might want to learn to read more and better.

Even more than writers, we are privileged, as literacy workers, to help them with that. We are also responsible, to them and to ourselves, for doing this work well.


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