Escape vs. Experience: Why Do We Read?

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard (a woman I know who shall remain nameless) say , “I read to escape.”  Countless, countless times.  And often the person she’s talking to will nod and agree, “Oh, me too!”  I don’t chime in on that conversation, because the reasons I read would make for a much longer conversation than that poor unsuspecting library patron has time for.

This conversation is often in the context of discussing a book that is “sad” or disturbing in some way.  I certainly understand the shielding instinct.  As a very empathetic person, I have to sometimes be careful in my reading. I’ve abandoned books before because they made me bawl (Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro comes to mind,) or avoided certain books altogether, especially if it has anything tragic involving animals or children.

The word escape, to me, suggests lighter reading, fun reading, reading you don’t have to think too hard about.  Escape is surely part of the reason I love to read.  Reading is another form of entertainment, after all, like watching TV or going to the movies.  Lose yourself in a novel or lose yourself for two hours in a darkened theater – each is a valuable, enjoyable way to spend your free time.  And I certainly have my favorite “lighter” authors and series that I like to mix in with heavier reads.  But I read voraciously – perhaps compulsively? – for other reasons.

If I had to boil it down to one word, like escape, my word would be experience.  I read to experience something – another way of life, another time period, another universe.  I read to experience something that I don’t otherwise get in my non-reading time as a wife/mother/Senior Branch Assistant/American/white woman.  I want to feel something, to connect, to travel, to learn.  I’ve always thought that one can learn just as much from a good novel as one can from nonfiction.  One learns about human beings – what makes them tick, what secrets they keep, how they relate (or don’t) to one another. One can step into the skin of another person – another gender, race, sexuality from one’s own.  Hopefully we step away from the novel with a deeper understanding of the challenges that person faces.  (This is why the #WeNeedDiverseBooks  and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns are so intricately tied in my mind- if we can read about people who are different from ourselves, maybe our hearts and minds will be open to the humanity in each of us.)

I don’t want to demean those who read purely for escape.  I truly don’t.  I don’t think the reasons I read are nobler or a sign of more intelligence.  I know that (Nameless,) for instance, reads some excellent, thoughtful books and is an very smart, caring person.  People who read only to escape still support their libraries, bookstores, and authors, after all.  They could be watching The Bachelor or some other soul-destroying reality television show.  (I mean, really.  I WILL be a snob about that show.)  And one man’s book trash is another man’s book treasure.  I grew up on a steady diet of Babysitter Club and Sweet Valley High books, after all, and I think I turned out okay.  Still – isn’t it interesting to ponder the reasons we read?  I mean, if you’re a total book nerd like I am.

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3 thoughts on “Escape vs. Experience: Why Do We Read?

  1. In The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee discusses this topic of “lesser” literature and “elevated” literature in a very amusing way. And I agree, your one-word description of “why I read” as experience is perfect! Oh, and I’ve added your blog to my blog list.

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