Why Do You Read?

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Your friend calls it a “palate cleanser.” You are standing in the basement of the bookstore where you both work, surrounded by books, talking about reading.

“Sometimes, you just need to read a book that reminds you of why you started reading in the first place,” she continues.

But you do not remember why you started reading in the first place, before reading was something you just did. You cannot remember what your life was like before reading, or how it changed after. How many people who read know why they do?

*

You are walking with your boyfriend on a humid night, your sweat a second skin. You are both fiction writers, which is absurd, but makes for pleasantly intense conversation. You are wondering if you didn’t write fiction, would still read as much as you do? If you didn’t work in a bookstore. If you didn’t teach writing. If you were a lawyer, or a CFO. What would be the point of reading then? To impress people? To loom superior over them? Or just to feel like you were? To enrich your soul, or just …

You are most impressed by your friend, the data scientist, who is part of his company’s book club. He often sends you the next month’s choices and asks your opinion.

“You like Ferrante, right?” he remembers. “What about The Girls?”

A few months ago, his club discussed Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. The novel is set during World War II, revolving around a French girl and a German boy whose paths eventually converge. She’s blind; he’s a radio whiz. It won the Pulitzer.

“They mostly talked about the mechanics of radio,” my friend says. “Engineers!”

“Why does he read?” you ask your boyfriend, a rhetorical question.

*

During a workshop at a writing retreat, your teacher tells you to think of your audience. He breaks the exercise into three parts. Consider your one perfect reader, the one person your book is meant to reach. Who is it? Next, a perfect audience of one thousand. Who are they? Finally, twenty-thousand. He draws concentric circles — just three. “You really only get twenty-thousand readers,” he says. “And only if you’re very lucky.” This is not news. Twenty-thousand is plenty. You once believed, for a long time, that you could enter a room and leave it an hour later and no one would remember your name or a single thing you’d said. One thousand is plenty. One? Well, it depends on why she’s reading.

*

Your friend from your MFA is back in town. His debut book is launching at the bookstore where you work, and you are chatting before the reading as he signs your copy.

“I asked my publisher how many copies they expect a first author to sell,” he says. “They said only fifteen-hundred.”

He sounds aghast, but you are relieved. Only fifteen-hundred to meet expectations. Then, you’re frightened. Fifteen-hundred in order to meet expectations. Have you even met fifteen-hundred people?

*

You have no attention span recently. You stare at your stack of summer books, the ones you were excited to read once you turned in your novel. The stack shortens only when the library threatens to freeze your account.

Instead, you read books that are in the vignette form. It is a very fun form to read in; it almost doesn’t feel like reading at all. More like dreaming, more like falling asleep and waking up with a start, wondering where you are, what part of the plot you’re on.

In one book, the vignettes are only one line long. The book is only ninety pages. You’ve been stuck on page 83 since June! You pause writing this essay to finish that book. Yet another reason you read.

“Don’t romanticize a vacuum.” These are the cute things you get to say to your boyfriend. “You can’t help but have what you read be influenced by what and who’s around you. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

He also has a friend who impresses him with her reading. She’s an eighth-grade English teacher.

*

You’ve always been a sponge. After listening to stand-up, your mind speaks in the same cadence as the comic. The same happens with books. The vignette form is a seductive one, though you’ve always wondered if the writers had any idea where they were going or what they were doing. You don’t, not really.

You also don’t know what the correct term is for what you call “writing in the vignette form.” Critics call it experimental, like trying something that might fail at any moment, but you think it feels more like circling the drain.

It’s a form good for indulgence. Vulnerability. And distance.

*

Your book’s publication date is slipped into an email, at the very bottom of a production schedule. Under “Other Dates of Interest.” June 19. You suppose you are doing the same thing right now. You are being flippant when in fact you are so scared. The days spilling like water from your hands. How are you going to find fifteen-hundred people in less than a year and convince them all to read your book? If only you could remember why people read in the first place.

*

Circling the drain, or circling the point, or, like an airplane, circling above the runway. In any case, the target has already been acquired. You are just waiting to land.

*

The bookstore friend reads Neil Gaiman for a palate cleanser. Sweeping fantasies. She says that it reminds her that reading doesn’t have to be work.

“I’ve never thought about why I started reading,” I say, and I’m so abashed when the words come out of my mouth, like a revelation, that I want to distance myself from them immediately.

Sometimes, you circle and you circle, and you never find the point. But here is mine. I don’t know who will read my novel. I don’t know in what numbers. To ask these questions is to drive myself insane. So here is a better question to drive myself crazy as the days count down. Why do I read in the first place? Why do you?

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