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Why Readers Read

by Beth Luey

Reading is a mystery. Sales figures, opinion polls, and library circulation statistics collectively tell us something about who reads and what they read, but they shed little light on why people read or what they experience as they read.

Theories abound, offered by disciplines ranging from literary theory to clinical psychology, each supported by credible evidence and most consistent with all the others; but none of them really answers these central questions.

The mystery has many sources. Reading is not a single, straightforward act but rather a variety of very different activities, each with its own motivation and rewards.

Reading may be compulsive, compulsory, mesmerizing, boring, exciting, relaxing, inspiring, depressing, or matter-of-fact and devoid of emotional content—all in the course of a single day for a single reader.

All in a Day’s Reading

You get up early one morning, and the paper hasn’t arrived, so you read the cereal box and the milk carton, an experience without intellectual or emotional content, bordering on the compulsive.

Later you read the newspaper and experience a range of emotions: anger on the front page, sorrow on the obituary page, amusement at the comics. On the way to work, you read billboards and other ads.

At work, you read your email plus the ads, letters, and other routine trivia in your inbox. You read a request for a proposal, or a budget revision, or something else that requires you to think and respond. In the afternoon, you may read something that requires concentration, note-taking, and research on the Web or in reference books.

At home in the evening, you may read a recipe, or at least the heating instructions on a package. Later, you may read a mystery or a romance novel or a nonfiction book that takes you out of your own world. You may have selected the book for any number of reasons; possibly you forgot to say No to the History Book Club. If you have young children, perhaps you read to them—anything from Goodnight Moon to Harry Potter. You may read a television schedule to see whether there’s anything worth watching.

All these experiences and more are reading, but they are all very different, and we engage in them for very different reasons, some conscious and some not.


The compulsive kind of reading—the cereal box, subway posters, and toothpaste tube—is the Mount Everest reading experience: reading it because it is there. For most of us, this practice is harmless enough and probably something we don’t even notice until it is pointed out.

Many readers use books for escape—temporary, refreshing, and reversible escape. This kind of reading allows us to step into another person’s life, into ideas that fully occupy our minds, or into adventures that we might not dare undertake in real life or that simply do not occur in anyone’s real life.

Jurassic Park, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist are great escapes that are all the more fun because we know they won’t actually happen to us. If we believed in cloned dinosaurs, impregnating demons, and possession, they might not be nearly as enjoyable, or they might be enjoyable in a different way. Of course, books need not be fantastic to provide this kind of absorption and escape.

Nonfiction rarely provides an emotional escape, but it may provide a diversion from the real world—or it may intensify our concerns about the real world by telling us that it is an even more dangerous place than we believed. It may take us to faraway places—or it may enhance our understanding of our own immediate surroundings.

Nevertheless, nonfiction can provide its own kind of escape by totally engaging the reader’s mind intellectually. If you are trying to follow a complex argument about evolution, linguistics, theology, or economics, you cannot simultaneously be thinking about what is going on at the office or where your teenager and the current significant other might have taken your new car.

Some reading is completely practical. Rather than diverting us from a current concern, it helps us resolve it. This is the kind of reading that user manuals, how-to books, reference books, and airline or television schedules provide: answers to questions and guides to action. Self-help books are a more complex variant of this phenomenon. When the problem is fixing a relationship rather than a clogged sink, or improving career prospects, the solution is going to take more words. Nonetheless, many of these books are framed as to-do lists or step-by-step solutions (The Five Pillars of Investing, The Six Sigma Way, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work . . . ).

Booksellers and the “Readers who bought this book also bought” lists tell us, though, that a single book rarely solves the reader’s problems. A reader who buys one volume of advice on any given problem is likely to buy several, suggesting that what is being sought is not an immediate, practical solution but general advice and reassurance.

Professional reading is also practical, leading to immediate changes in the way we work, food for thought, or ideas for new projects. Medical journals provide doctors with evaluations of new treatments; reports of court cases give lawyers information that affects the way they advise clients; scientific journals offer updates on what other researchers are doing.

But in addition to browsing current literature, practitioners and researchers also use older journals and reference books to get information on specific topics and answers to questions, or to investigate a new topic.

Popularizations, too, are read for many personal or professional reasons: for background knowledge, current information, and entertainment, and to keep up with current political events or scientific advances. They may also be read for social reasons, because readers want to be able to hold their own in conversation. Serious nonfiction ranks very high in the social pecking order of reading.

Readers on Reading

The way people dress, decorate their homes, and entertain themselves often reveals much about their preferences and backgrounds. The choices they make about what to read may also tell others about their tastes and education, although decoding any of these decisions is not straightforward, and reading is among the most difficult clues to decipher. Neighborhood gossips, political columnists, sociologists, and cultural critics have all attempted to classify people by what they read, but with limited success.

The perception that reading is a virtue, and that certain kinds of reading are more valued than others, complicates the task of getting good information about reading from readers themselves—a problem something like the one that sex researchers face.

The novelist and critic Robert Escarpit suggests that it is an even more difficult problem: “The likelihood of lucid and sincere answers is extremely reduced as soon as someone’s reading habits are examined. While the confession of one’s sexual peculiarities may flatter a latent exhibitionist, the avowal of literary or anti-literary tastes (whether too undiscriminating or too refined) which lower one’s position in society can only be painful. Most people find great difficulty in confessing to themselves the nature of their taste.”

Nevertheless, the surveys and analyses of reader reviews that I did, along with the work of other researchers, suggest that publishers could improve their decisions about how and what to publish by listening to what readers say about their reading.

These surveys do tell us that most readers are trying to learn something when they read nonfiction—a new subject, such as fuzzy logic; a subject that had recently aroused their interest, such as an area of the world suddenly in the news; new developments in subjects they know, such as emerging ideas about evolution; or specific information about a subject that they know only generally, such as greater detail about a historical figure or event portrayed on television. At the same time, though, they want to be entertained. They expect good writing. Bad writing, variously described by survey respondents as condescending, repetitious, or pompous, is the main reason for rejecting a book or leaving it unfinished.

Readers distinguish very clearly between reading for information—what we do when consulting reference books or other books useful for finding facts—and reading for understanding and knowledge. They view nonfiction reading as active and intellectually demanding, and this is part of its attraction.

The Best Benefit

In online reviews, readers’ highest praise is reserved for books that make them think. Readers like nonfiction because it is demanding and thought-provoking. They like books that explain difficult ideas, introduce new ideas, spark further interest, make them think differently, make them think for themselves, and enhance understanding.

Many of their comments emphasize the importance of being asked to think: one book “could keep you thinking for the rest of your life”; ”you thought you understood something, and then you find yourself following her arguments and realizing that you didn’t understand quite as well as you thought you did”; “I frequently stopped reading to think about what I believed”; it “made me reconsider what I know”; “it was a real pleasure to watch my objection to his argument fall apart as I read the rest of the book.”

One survey respondent noted that she reads nonfiction “to turn over the mental soil in the garden of thoughts.”

Beth Luey—director emerita of the Scholarly Publishing Program at Arizona State University and former president of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing—is the author of Handbook for Academic Authors, Revising Your Dissertation, and, with Stella Saperstein, The Harmonious Child: Every Parent’s Guide to Musical Instruments, Teachers, and Lessons. This article is derived from her new book, Expanding the American Mind: Books and the Popularization of Knowledge, from the University of Massachusetts Press. To order, visit umass.edu/umpress or call 800/537-5487.



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