Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why We Read; Why We Write

English teachers are often asked by book-weary students, "Why do we have to read?" or, "Why do we have to read this book? This book is depressing." 

We also hear, "Why does everyone die in every book that we read? Can't we read a book with a happy ending?"

These are interesting questions because they let us address the fundamental reasons why people write and why we all should read.

We read in order to understand and process the human experience. 

Here are two examples (there are millions more):

Reading a novel such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini helps us to understand life in Afghanistan, as well as how it feels to live with guilt, and how we may atone for this guilt, for the wrongs that we've done to others. 

Reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel helps us to understand the era of the Tudors in medieval England, and when we read this historical novel, we realize that people have always been--at heart--the same. We are and have always been political animals, giving to get, trying to protect ourselves and our families in dangerous times.

It's true that characters usually die in fiction and in drama.

Why is this? 

Maybe because we are all going to die in real life. Death is inevitable, the ultimate shared human experience. 

Thinking about death is useful because it helps us to think about life. It's yin and yang--we can't have one without the other. If we didn't die, we wouldn't know how to cherish and make the most of our lives, now would we? Similarly, if we didn't know evil, we would never be able to recognize good.

We write about people and death and love and sin and good and evil in order to communicate, to share ideas and experiences. 

Writing helps us to find common ground or to persuade others to consider life they way that we do. 

For writing to hold our attention, it usually needs a story,  an anecdotal experience we can relate to.

Story is essential; stories are the basic framework through which we consider life and the world.

The primary subject of our writing is often our own story (after all, the individual usually finds him or herself to be the most interesting subject; that's just natural, even if, deep down, we know it's not always true). We know, or think we know, ourselves. 

Sharing our stories helps us see how the personal is also the universal.

And that's what it's all about: realizing that we are connected, no matter where or when we live, or how we live. We share common human stories. 

Life is not perfect; usually, it's pretty hard. But if life weren't hard sometimes, we would not be able to appreciate when it's easy.

Life, while you're in school, is indeed comparatively easy. Enjoy it--even if you have to read that depressing book.


  1. Is this movement among coddled American students not terrifying to English professors?

    Are you excited about the Democratic Party Convention coming to Philadelphia? Are you going to write about it?

  2. Which movement? The "hating to read" movement--or the hating on white male writers?

    I would never call for a blanket ban on anything, anyone, or any kind of book, but I WILL tell you from experience that students don't get much exposure to female authors. Not because there are not great female authors, but rather, because females have historically (and yes, even now!) barely been published in comparable numbers.

    The only female authors I read in high school (beyond Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison--both of whom, I hate to admit, I am quite sick of--at this point) were short story authors like Katherine Ann Porter, Flannery O'Connor and Willa Cather.

    The American (and British) canon is crammed full of male writers; we do need some revamping of the "classics" list, and more calculated inclusion of female authors.

    Looking back on high school, I now realize I was given every work by both Hemingway and Shakespeare. And that's about it, aside from summer reading, which was a serious endeavor when I was in school, quite a competition (we read 30 books, or more).

    Anyway--as for the DNC in Philly, sure, I am excited (a little). I have considered attending, but I am worried about potential violence. Not IN the convention, but because of the convention.

    Who are you? Wherefore Anonymous?