Why You Should Read For Pleasure

What you get and what you become from reading fiction.

In his 2013 lecture for The UK’s Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman reminds us that “reading for pleasure is one of the most important things one can do." 

Here's why.

Reading fiction is the “gateway drug to reading.” 

By reading stories that compel us to keep turning the page, we discover that “reading per se is pleasurable.” 

We build up a habit of reading fiction that spills over into reading everything - instructions, news, opinions, the fine print, medical, scientific or philosophical breakthroughs. Through reading we access information. And this, according to Gaiman, is key. 

“In the last few years, we've moved from an information scarce economy to one driven by an information glut,” Gaiman says. During this time of information excess, “literacy is more important than ever it was.”

“We need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood," he explains. 

If we are less literate and less numerate, it means a population “less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves.”

Reading fiction is unique in how it builds empathy

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people,” Gaiman says.

However when reading fiction “ … you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know."

“You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed.” 

When we put down the book, a morsel of the emotions and experiences of the characters remain with us, assimilating into our own. 

Through reading fiction, we can build empathy for people and situations we may never have the good or bad fortune to directly experience in our own lives. Fiction books connect us with others. 


Reading fiction plants seeds of discontent

When we read fiction, we see the world as it could be – for better or for worse, and that provokes change. 

“Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”

And the change begins with imagination.

"I'm going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It's this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined ...

....over and over and over, people imagined things. They daydreamed, they pondered, they made things that didn't quite work, they described things that didn't yet exist to people who laughed at them.
And then, in time, they succeeded. Political movements, personal movements, all began with people imagining another way of existing."

But more than just imagine, Gaiman says,

“We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Don't leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we've shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.”


Fiction books help us escape 

By helping us escape, fiction books help us cope with real life. 

"I'd like to say a few words about escapism," Gaiman says. "I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if "escapist" fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in."

But if you think about it more deeply,


"If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it?
And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real."

The truth of the emotional journey of the characters resonates with us, helps us feel less alone, and helps us to cope with, and make changes, in our lives. Fiction books are our mentors. 

Fiction books also provide a continuum of humanity's experience that we can draw on, one that reaches across time and place. 

"Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us." It shows us "that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over," he says.


Enough reasons, it's time to pick up a book. 


Read the full lecture on the UK’s Reading Agency's website. 


Posted on June 1, 2016 and filed under Ideas, Worth Reading.