Mar 26, 2016

Why I Read

Back in 2009, I put a post on my old LiveJournal blog. It was titled "Why I Read." This is an updated version of that post...

I am currently reading Alain de Botton's excellent How Proust Can Change Your Life. It seems to be a wonderful primer on how to glean wisdom from reading literature. I am reminded while I make my way through it about why I read and what I have gotten out of my adventures with books up to this point in my life.

When I was very young in the world, I read for pleasure. I was that set-apart sort who snuck books into class and scoured over them instead of paying attention to the teachers’ instructions. At lunch I could often be found in the school library reading something or another.

As a youth I read the usual kinds of books that capture the imaginations of young boys. Sure there were comics and joke books and books that showed me how to draw cars and dinosaurs and superheroes, but there was a lot more. I remember touchstones in my literary education. I remember colorful tales of Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody. I remember reading over Treasure Island for the first time. I remember those Time-Life Books about ancient cities and lost treasure. There were picture books about explorers, Roman centurians, pirates and astronauts. I remember finding Dracula for the first time with its epistolary structure and it bolstering my growing interest in letter writing. I remember Sherlock Holmes and Doyle’s excellent, but often overlooked The Lost World. I remember reading and being captivated by Robin Graham’s account of – as a teenager - sailing around the world alone...
Halfway through high school I had two reading experiences that held considerable weight in my literary growth. First, during one summer I read the complete decalogy of L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi epic Mission: Earth. I look back and realize I was the perfect age for the pulpy, sprawling adventure story. It took all summer to read the ten fat paperback books in the series and it was the first time I was aware of reading being a feat (admittedly, in hindsight, not a very impressive feat, but at the time it was an accomplishment).
Secondly, it was part way through high school that I discovered Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. I picked it up at the public library and read it all the way through two times in a row during that one sitting. The swashbuckling story of love, language and loss ignited my adolescent mind as it had, doubtless, done to countless boys through the years. The play remained my favorite for years and to this day, I collect different translations of the piece for my private collection. More profoundly, it started an interest in stage plays that later evolved into a livelihood and, ultimately, a career (though the idea that I have a career, as the concept is usually understood, could certainly be argued).
In college I discovered Beckett, Hemingway, Melville and Shakespeare. I did my work-study in three places as an undergrad, each of which ended up aiding me in some way: the computer lab, the school newspaper and in the college library. In the library I frequently had to reshelf dozens of books off of rickety wooden rolling carts. The quiet and calm of the space as well as the ample opportunities to browse and thumb through different things I would not normally be drawn to widened the range of my literary appetite. I remember reading about Tesla, and Theodore Roosevelt and The Compass Players (the fore-runners of Chicago’s legendary Second City comedy troupe). It was at the end of college that I drifted from fiction and general interest and finally began reading with a goal in mind. I had grown out of the phase of reading for sheer joy, simply to stretch the imagination as I had done as a child, and turned to books to feed my spirit and better my person.
I began to “read well” as it is called. In the wanderlust years after my time as an undergraduate, I began to realize time was finite and there would be no time for consuming randomness or mediocrity. There simply wasn’t enough time to read all there was to read and so choices had to be made. I became more selective and read deeper. I turned to biographies as well as volumes on spiritualism, on history, and on sociology. I wasn’t just curious how the world worked in general, but how my immediate world worked. I began to read books concerning my own fields of study and my own specific interests. How did the theatre work? How does it now? How does society? How does our minds and economies and histories work?
My reading was no longer willy-nilly, but goal-oriented. It was still organic, one work leading to another to another, but with a distinct focus. It was in these more recent years that I picked up Walden for the first time and the works of Malcolm Gladwell. I consumed Brustein, Brook and Mamet’s essays on the theatre. Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s studies on Creativity filled many engaging hours.
For someone who works so often in such a supposedly collaborative art form like the theatre, I disproportionally value seclusion and isolation. I like being alone and I love being alone with a good book. I value some of my reading experiences as among the happiest times of my life so far. I read literature and recognize the fictional characters to the parallel people in my own life. I gleam information in small nuggets of epiphany. I feel that divine sadness when a good book ends that same way I feel sorrow when saying goodbye to a friend who is departing and I won’t see again for a long while.
As time goes on I find more and more that reading is a very personal thing. Part of its charm is that it’s gains cannot be easily transferred. I am learning to keep my knowledge to myself. A good friend and I have a running gag about this. Every time he hears me mention The Blue Zones, he uses it as a cue to launch into complete and instantaneous derision. I realize he hasn't walked my path. He doesn't have my context. It is a joke between my friends and I that I must "discover" everything for myself. This seems to be true of everyone. My friend must read the book on his own. Not only that, but he must have read all the books that lead me to the book as well. And he won't and to some degree can't. My path to reading The Blue Zones is distinctly, and privately, my own.
I still read voraciously. I consume, when time and energy and daily life allow, up to three books a week. Now there is a search under it. I read nowadays not to escape, but to confront and explore. I read for the restorative and emboldening properties within the solitary activity. I read to discover. I read to augment the self.

[NOTE: If you are interested in the 30-someodd books that have had the most impact on me, visit the page on this site labelled Book Shelf]

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