In fourth grade, my teacher suggested that I enter an essay contest. I had to write two pages answering the question “Why do you like to read?” I thought for a long time, wrote a short paragraph, and gave up. The little I had written was boring and trite. I don’t remember what I said, but I can imagine the gist of it, since I’ve heard it all hundreds of times since then. Books are magical portals to other worlds. Books give you a chance to live a thousand lives.
I don’t think I knew what the word “cliche” meant when I was 10 but I knew that I was being unoriginal, and what I had said did not even feel true. Thinking of books as an escape or a chance to live someone else’s life seemed unfair to my life.
Part of the reason I can’t connect with the idea of reading as an escape is that, for me, it just doesn’t work as one. Nothing, not even a good book, manages to distract me for long from whatever I’ve been thinking about or getting stressed out over. Yet if I’m worried about something, there are few things that make me feel better than reading.
For better or for worse, I read egotistically. I obsessively draw connections to my own experiences, no matter how much of a stretch it is to do so. And nothing amazes me more than realizing over and over that someone else has thought the same things I have—unless it’s how eloquent some authors are in describing the most apparently mundane of feelings. I think, “I should really stop looking at that guy.” Leo Tolstoy says, “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” Self-centered as it may be, I read to see my own thoughts and feelings expressed by people smarter than I am.
I also read so that I can better understand the perspectives of people who don’t think like me. Often I feel that I absorb the ideas from my favorite books so fully that I can’t tell where the author’s thoughts end and mine begin. I’m so easily convinced by articulate writers that I wonder if I’ve had an original idea in my life. I’ve often been bothered by the realization that what some people take for intelligence is really just the regurgitation of dead people’s conclusions.
However, it constantly amazes me that I have the chance to sift through thousands of years of reflections. I remain suspicious of cliches that glorify the opportunity to vicariously live an amazing life without leaving my bed. Reading, for me, is less about living the lives of the characters than about thinking the thoughts of the authors. The real power of books is their ability to shape and change my perspective.