On Reading: A short essay on why we read and how books shape us

If you were to keep a record of the books you have read over the course of five years, would the books all tend to be in the same genre, the same type of story, with the same problems or same conflicts? Probably not. Our personal interests and challenges in life evolve, they change shape, and we tend to reflect that change in our reading. I want to spend some time talking about why we select the books we do and how they influence us. I will be discussing reasons beyond our need to simply know more or study a particular subject.

One of the first reasons we may read books is for the escape. I would ask you to consider if there has ever been a moment in your life, a day, a week, or month where the reality of a situation was either so painful or mundane that you wish you were somewhere else. When we are laying in our beds trying to sleep or in transit and we don’t wish to look at the strange faces of the people around us, we need something to distract us from our world. We need to journey to someplace else for awhile. Enter books. Whether it is fantasy, sci-fi, romance, adventure, or some other genre altogether, books allow us to drift off and imagine ourselves in a world all our own, where we can become wizards or great heroes. Yet sometimes the experience of escape is not what we are looking for at all. Instead we are searching for something lacking.

In my last article on reading habits, I talked about the idea of a book for every mood or day. To continue from that point, sometimes we want to read to feel or experience something that is repressed or hidden. This is more commonly known as catharsis and does not apply just to books but to all forms of artistic creation and expression.

ca·thar·sis

/kəˈTHärsəs/

noun: catharsis; plural noun: catharses

1. the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.

Dictionary.com

The concept is typically associated with Aristotle’s Poetics, where Aristotle discusses the Ancient Greek Tragedies and the need for an audience to purge themselves of pity and fear. In this sense, we use books to get in touch with certain emotions we may not be able to fully express. Emotions such as love, anger, joy, or sadness. Beyond this release, many of us (myself included) also turn to books with the intent on deeper reflection of who we are as people or to better grasp critical events or stages in our life.

If catharsis is a massive release, like pouring water into lake, then our using books for deeper reflection is like staring at our rippled image in those same waters to try and make sense of ourselves (picture that one scene in Disney’s Mulan). For me, one such book I turned to was Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I really connected with the protagonist Charlie even though he had many challenges that I never experienced. The book allowed me to reflect more deeply on who I was as a person including the good, the bad, and the socially awkward. Reflection is a moment when we are at our most vulnerable, where we may turn our gaze towards ourselves, begin to evaluate our decisions and who we are as people. Rather than speaking to another person, you may feel more comforted in reading the story of another human being(be it real or fake) and pick from the lessons the story has to teach you to help you in your own life.

Whatever reason you pick up a book, regardless if it is for escape, catharsis, or reflection, I hope that you find what you are looking for. If you don’t, keeping searching, keep reading. There are countless books out there and similar to horcruxes, you may find pieces of yourself scattered among 100’s if not thousands.


I hope you enjoyed the first small essay on the blog. I would love to hear from you on your reasons for reading or what reading has done for you. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.