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BTT – Why You Read

Thursday, 25 February 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Occasionally I remember to check for new meme topics on the Booking Through Thursday site. This quote was submitted by blogger Janet from Across the Page.

Janet says: I’ve seen this quotation in several places lately. It’s from Sven Birkerts’ ‘The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age’:

To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or one’s orientation toward it.

To what extent does this describe you?

Before I even attempted to contemplate this quote, I had to get out my dictionary to be sure that I understood what was being said. Here’s my best attempt at a paraphrase:

When a person chooses to read a book (rather than being given the reading as an assignment or for work) they are making a deliberate assertion, making a choice for one thing over another. They are picking another place and heading to it. And like anytime a person travels, reading is moving away from and commenting about where you started. When you voluntarily read a book, at some level you are remarking on either inadequacy of your life or your attitude about it.

My first thought upon reading the quote was “No way this describes all readers!” There are so many fantastic reasons for reading that have nothing to do with escaping. And I will stand by that assertion. But, the more I think about it, the more it seems that he may be saying more than just the “we read to escape” that jumped out at me at first.

Anytime you chose to do *anything* you are choosing one thing over another. The fact that I’m sitting here typing this means that I have chosen not to respond to the buzz of the dryer. I’ve decided on blogging over laundry (for now). Since I often listen to audiobooks while doing housework, my first thought was that I wasn’t really choosing one thing over the other because I was still doing things while listening. But it did occur to me that in occupying my mind with a book I am therefore not cogitating on a myriad of other things that I could contemplate. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a choice.

But does reading mean I think my life is inadequate or that I have a bad attitude about it? If I pick up a “how to” book, then I’m certainly thinking I need to improve somehow, either in my knowledge or actions. Wanting to continue to learn and evolve in your life is an important part of living up to your potential. So perhaps instead of implying a bad attitude about your life he’s saying you could be displaying a desire to improve yourself.

Looking at it that way, I would say that the quote does describe me.

His comments on why we travel are certainly intriguing. The way he phrases his thoughts really requires more than just a cursory reading to understand. After my first read through I came away with an idea paralleling what I thought he was saying about reading, and even after I decided he might not be saying what I originally thought he was saying about reading, I still was stalled thinking he meant we travel to get away. My old brain is a bit slow, but it’s finally beginning to sink into my consciousness that perhaps there is more to this quote than meets the eye at first. “Moving away from and commenting on” where you are does not imply that it is a bad place, it’s just an acknowledgement that by staying in one place you miss out on many opportunities to expand your worldview. You say to the world that you know getting out into it is an important part of being well rounded.

I’d love to see the quote in context and find out if all of his writing requires so much deciphering.

To close here is a Terry Pratchett quote from A Hat Full of Sky that is one of my favorites on the subject of travel (and applies well to traveling into a book, too):

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

  1. Thursday, 25 February 2010 at 2:55 pm

    I agree, I might have rushed through the quotation without allowing it to really sink in. Love that Terry Pratchett quote! Here’s mine:


  2. Thursday, 25 February 2010 at 9:18 pm

    this quote has got people thinking and discussing — that’s what books do!

    Here’s my answer


  3. Lex
    Sunday, 7 March 2010 at 7:14 am

    I love Pratchett’s quote better than Birkert’s. Lol.

    Even with your interpretation, I still don’t think it applies to all readers such as me. I sometimes read because I have nothing to do and I am at my leisure but like you, I sometimes read when I’m supposed to be doing something else!

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