Why read?

Mr James Courtenay Clack, English teacher at WHS, argues for a long summer holiday spent reading.

One of the less-heralded benefits of this sorry excuse for a year has been the absence of the daily commute. I only live a short train ride from Wimbledon, but the time that I have saved – which would normally be spent jammed up against other angst-ridden riders of the Tooting-Wimbledon bullet train, listening to Prince through tinny headphones – has been spent pondering the big questions. Mostly. Well, sometimes. Questions such as why study English? Why teach English? Why teach at all?

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Moving away from the obvious one, I found that my answer to these three questions all linked back to the answer to my first question: why read? There are all sorts of reasons for both studying and teaching English as a subject, but I realised that I teach, idealistic fool that I am, because I believe in the innate good that comes from reading.

For the purpose of this article, I am going to distinguish between studying English Literature as an academic discipline and reading in general, regardless of how easily this distinction crumbles once submitted to further questioning. This is not going to be an essay in defence of the timetabled subject English (for a start, the school mandates that every student study both English and English Literature up to Y11, so there), but one in defence of reading, broadened to include anyone – student, staff member, parent – who might read this article.

So, I ask again, why read? Well firstly, because the things we find in books are as crucial to our survival as food, drink and government-mandated, socially-distanced exercise. The American poet William Carlos Williams wrote that ‘it is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there’. There are two ways of looking at this. Primarily, Williams is right, in my experience at least, that books are there to shine a light on what it means to be a human being. This oft-used phrase may sound trite, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is essentially true. Whether it is in Borges’ mythical Library of Babel (containing every book ever written and ever to be written) or just in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road, there is guaranteed to be a book on the shelves in which the feelings, tensions, crises or traumas that you currently are experiencing are explored, questioned and perhaps even resolved.

For example: I wouldn’t say that we live in a political climate ruled over by a sometimes charming, always loquacious demagogue, driven to insanity by a long-held grudge and sense of emasculation and who has enlisted the populace to follow him to a shared destruction, but when I read Ishmael’s mix of horror and fascination as Captain Ahab exhorts his crew to pursue Moby-Dick to the ends of the earth and to the ends of their lives, I can’t say that I don’t feel a slight tingle of grim recognition.

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On a less epic scale, I have taken great comfort during the lockdown from reading books published in the early 1920s, in the aftermath of the devastation of the Spanish Flu. I recognise myself, scratching at the front door of my flat like a demented Cairn terrier desperate for a walk, in Clarissa Dalloway’s sheer delight at going out to buy flowers after being struck down by influenza. Do I not too feel ‘what a lark! What a plunge!’ as I leave the house and queue up outside Sainsbury’s? How wonderful to find that moment of recognition, no matter how epic or how mundane, in a book that was published nearly a hundred years ago? How reassuring to realise that for all of our differences (sadly Clarissa and I don’t also have a large Westminster townhouse in common), there is something fundamental to human experience?

These moments of recognition – the realisation that somebody else has felt or thought or experienced what we do now – can sustain us. These moments in reading, where we recognise our own feelings – whether they be of hope or anxiety, love or heartbreak, friendship or loneliness – in others, allow us to see something fundamental about ourselves. The American educator Mark Edmundson, who has written a number of amazing books defending the ideals of a liberal education, writes ‘the reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate… The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself’.

There has been much debate recently about writers telling stories that are not part of their own lived experiences. This debate is far too nuanced to unpack here, but one thing I find unsettling is the idea of staying in your lane when it comes to literature. I think the second, and perhaps most important, answer to my original question is that reading allows us not only to see our own lives reflected back to us, but also to see what life is like for people whose experiences are almost completely alien to our own. Here, the importance of reading comes not just from the content of a book (Moby-Dick, say) but from the act of reading itself. I have no real understanding of what life would be like on a 19th Century whaling voyage and, like most people, am horrified by the idea of killing whales and yet Moby-Dick is my favourite book. By reading the book, I must leave my own life behind and spend time in another one. To go back to Edmundson again, we read ‘because, as rich as the one life we have may be, one life is not enough.’

To pick another example, in my Caribbean Literature elective with Y11 and Y13, I have asked my class to put themselves in the shoes of indentured Indian labourers in Trinidad, a Saint Lucian fisherman who works in the same waters into which the bodies of his ancestors were thrown during the Middle Passage and an apparently mad woman who is locked in the attic by her uncaring husband. All of these things are so beyond our own lived experiences that reading becomes an exercise in extending empathy.

It is no secret that we experience the world in different ways and that at this moment, the world seems particularly divided. No matter what the cause of these divides – whether it be how we experience race, gender, sexuality, or class; our views on Brexit or Trump or globalisation – there is always something to be gained from looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes. You might also just find that a person born to a different time, race, gender or political disposition has felt or thought something that you thought only you had.

So, that is why we read. Lucky then, that the government has just reopened the book shops in time for the summer holidays.


· Why Read – Mark Edmundson, Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition (1 Sept. 2005)

· Why Teach? – Mark Edmundson, Bloomsbury USA (24 Oct. 2013)

· ‘Through the smudged pane’ – Elizabeth Winkler, TLS https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/pandemic-consciousness-mrs-dalloway-essay-elizabeth-winkler/

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