What Is Reading For?
I saw this comment on a post in someone else’s blog the other day:
My theory is, at least they’re reading. Who cares what they read? Just read, damn it.
If the discussion were about kids who were just learning to read, I’d be inclined to agree–there is a point in everyone’s life when the best way to improve as a reader is to read as much as you can, regardless of the content (mostly–I hate Captain Underpants!). But the blog post was about reading in general, and I just can’t agree with this comment. There is no point in reading for reading’s sake, unless you’re trying to build fluency. You either read to be entertained or to be educated.
Both kinds of reading are worthwhile, but I think too many people stop at merely being entertained (and here I must say again that reading for entertainment and reading for education are not mutually exclusive). Henry Fielding offers this comment on reading for amusement:
The present age seems pretty well agreed in an opinion, that the utmost scope and end of reading is amusement only; and such, indeed, are now the fashionable books, that a reader can propose no more than mere entertainment, and it is sometimes very well for him if he finds even this, in his studies.
Letters, however, were surely intended for a much more noble and profitable purpose than this. Writers are not, I presume, to be considered as mere jack-puddings, whose business it is only to excite laughter: this, indeed, may sometimes be intermixed and served up with graver matters, in order to titillate the palate, and to recommend wholesome food to the mind; and for this purpose it hath been used by many excellent authors: “for why,” as Horace says, “should not any one promulgate truth with a smile on his countenance?” Ridicule indeed, as he again intimates, is commonly a stronger and better method of attacking vice than the severer kind of satire.
When wit and humour are introduced for such good purposes, when the agreeable is blended with the useful, then is the writer said to have succeeded in every point. Pleasantry…should be made only the vehicle of instruction; and thus romances themselves, as well as epic poems, may become worthy the perusal of the greatest of men: but when no moral, no lesson, no instruction, is conveyed to the reader, where the whole design of the composition is no more than to make us laugh, the writer comes very near to the character of a buffoon; and his admirers, if an old Latin proverb be true, deserve no great compliments to be paid to their wisdom.