In light of last week's National Endowment for the Arts report that reading for pleasure, and reading ability, have been falling among young people from middle school through college, Mokoto Rich of the New York Times weighed in yesterday on the question of what makes people become readers. The piece is full of provocative theories and reflections. Since nobody knows for sure why people read, I thought I would add one small piece of a theory. It has to do with work and with power.
Work, in that reading a book is a physical act: One acquires, carries, holds the book, turns the pages, in the same way one rakes leaves, climbs a ladder, or travels across a landscape. It is light, not heavy, lifting, but lifting just the same. More than once in my life, usually in the summer by a lake or at the beach, a bug has walked across the page of a book I have been reading. I have always noticed this with interest, and thought that I had something in common with the bug: He or she travels along and between the lines, in the sense of setting sail across the swells of an ocean, or in and among the trenches of a battlefield. The only difference is that the ant or beetle does not know where he or she is, or where going. The braille reader knows this experience the most strongly: Reading braille is like seizing, grabbing, the text with the hands, which braille readers insist is wholly different from listening to a book on tape. Which leads to...
power, in that when you read, you are aggressively seeking and getting the learning or the story, rather than sitting passively and being told, as the illiterate person must learn by being told. If you can read, you can go on your own to find out a truth, but if you are not a reader, you can only hope that you hear it, in person or on television or radio. This is what people mean when they say that reading is a kind of adventure. People who love to read, in my hypothesis, tend to be the kind who crave adventure, even if they're too shy to go abroad, or lack the funds.
No one ever said it better than Emily Dickinson, who, it's safe to say, never set foot on, or probably ever saw, a frigate:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!