Why We Read What We Read: Utility or Tradition?

Feast of St Moses of Optina

Books_Square.jpgOF LATE I have often found myself reflecting on why I choose to read the particular books I read, and also why others choose the books they do. And (as is my wont) I have also found myself reflecting on the larger cultural and intellectual trends connected to our individual reading habits.

I tend to read a book based on its author more than its content, and I rarely read a book that hasn’t come highly recommended to me by a person I trust, whether a family member, friend, or author. Consequently, I read very few books I don’t end up really liking. I approach reading this way because (1) I am not an incredibly fast or voracious reader and (2) because I view reading as a means to shaping my moral, intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual development. Of course, occasionally I find myself devouring a young adult or mystery novel (or three) that is not part of my “program,” and I do not resist this urge, because (again) people I trust have told me not to, and I really do find pleasure in reading at whim. But for the most part I read from the ever-expanding shelf (okay, shelves) of books I have decided I should (and do genuinely want to) read. This approach affords me exposure to a broad range of ideas and approaches to the world. Potentially every mode or genre is open to me. I don’t read because an author says a specific thing but because I’ve been told it’s good, whatever it’s about. It’s reading based more on authority and tradition than on utility.

Which brings me to another approach: reading as a form of fact-finding. One reads a book because it answers a specific question or solves a certain problem. This approach can reduce to a therapeutic mindset centered on self-help and pop psychology. But it need not do so. Think of a scholar who reads only the technical monographs and scholarly articles published in his or her discipline (or subdiscipline). What’s more, two people may come at the same book for different reasons. Take Dante’s Divine Comedy. One person may read it because they are interested in medieval ideas of the afterlife. Another may read it, as I currently am, because, well, one should read Dante, and somebody did a really good write-up on the Robert and Jean Hollander translation in the New Yorker seven or eight years ago.

Either of these approaches can skew good or bad. The books a person chooses to read, regardless of their approach to reading as a discipline, are often an indicator of imagination and intellect as much as, or more than, methodology. So I don’t mean to be overly critical of this latter approach. But just as to a person with a hammer everything looks like a nail, so to a person who looks at the world as a series of problems to be solved everything looks like a potential solution. And we live in a culture that values problem-solving. A hazard of the reading-as-fact-finding approach is that it tends to neglect entire worlds of books. For instance, they would less often read fiction, and almost never as a form of moral, intellectual, or spiritual development. Fiction, by its very nature, is superfluous, by definition unnecessary. It advertises itself not as a set of practical principles—what to do—but as a way of being in the world. Its non-utility is its reason for being.

But when I read a work of fiction I don’t contemplate its nonnecessity; I encounter lives, characters, events. I don’t discover what I should do but what it means to be human. I discover things about myself and the world I would never have realized had I not approached this thing precisely as unnecessary. I might in fact learn things of highly practical value, but I don’t come to a work of fiction for that purpose.

But for all the existential benefits of reading fiction, it’s the sense of unlooked-for discovery, even of the practical, that’s most interesting to me here. Reading as fact-finding, for utility, seeks to remedy known unknowns. In my experience, a lot of engineers approach reading this way, and not without great personal benefit. Reading based on authority and tradition, however, deals more in the world of unknown unknowns. Much of the joy I experience in reading comes from learning something I didn’t know I didn’t know. I feel like it keeps me at the horizon of mystery, and if I aim to encounter the mysterious in my reading I’ll get the practical thrown in. But if I aim for the practical, I’m in danger of getting neither (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis). Therein lies a theological analogy.


 Jeff Reimer is a freelance editor and writer based in Newton, Kansas.

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