Why We Read and Why We Write

August 2, 2017 | 4 6 min read

Samuel Johnson said the greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write. But reading, unlike writing, is a pursuit decidedly devoid of glory. Ideally, it cultivates the quiet virtues of patience, attention, and self-denial. Yet, in the broader scheme of literary life, the pressure to write, to produce, to broadcast a voice and, with it, a reputation, always beckons. Regrettably, readers are often subject to the scorn of some writers, with the latter sometimes treating the former as mere consumers, incapable or unwilling to produce “work.” Sheila Liming, in her recent essay “In Praise of Not Not Reading,” recounts a male colleague pursuing an MFA in fiction tell her he literally didn’t believe in reading. “I’m a writer, I make things,” he said, “whereas you’re a reader, you consume things.”

Liming’s colleague is acting out what she describes as “producerist” ideology. And this pathology is not at all just confined to academia. In much of American political and educational discourse, what is not “useful” to data-driven objectives is considered an essentially idle concern. But the preoccupation of a writer with “work” at the expense of reading is a strange and unfortunate posture for a writer to adopt, given that writers stereotypically are not known for their practical sense or their forfeiture of the virtues of inquiry. But what the aforementioned writer’s attitude really shows is a contempt for education, for cultivation, for the strenuous labor necessary for true inquiry.

Liming aptly observes “the work of reading generally goes unrewarded: tenure committees don’t care about it; grants are not won by it; and riches do not wait in store for the patient and dedicated reader.” But she also asserts all above factors to even more clearly demonstrate the virtue of reading itself. “Reading,” she goes on to say, “is a form of production that resists monetization and the logic of structural incentives. It produces things like experience, knowledge, discomfort and communion.” Reading then is a moral and subversive act in its own right. It’s a disengagement from the commercial and competitive in pursuit of heightened moral sense coupled with aesthetic and intellectual engagement. Reading doesn’t produce “work” itself as “producerist” ideology would have it, but rather it cultivates the intangibles that go into that work. What we gain by reading is what we often strive for in life when we’re actually thinking about what we want.

But what if reading is morally inferior to writing? What if readers just want to have virtue and fun at the same time and won’t admit it? Lately I’ve I felt the need to challenge my regular reading zeal, so I started by rereading what I thought would be a fitting antidote: George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write.” It’d been a long time since I’d read it, so I came to it without preconceptions. I was looking for a direct challenge, a tap on the shoulder and a wag of the finger, to remind me that “producerist” or not, writing is a direct contribution to culture in a way reading might not be. What I found was something more complicated. Orwell demystifies writing in an admirably unsentimental way, a way in which the reader can’t help but pay mind to an informed, candid speaker. As I read his essay, I realized that writing and reading weren’t absolutely contrary after all. Most importantly, I realized each undertaking required a capacity for solitude and a willingness to face likely irresolvable questions. But that’s not all.

Ego plays a role too—although in this regard, it predominates in writing. “From the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued,” Orwell reflects. “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” So yeah, the will to write is complicated. Writerly egotism, or the desire “to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood,” is not a new concept. It’s about staking one’s claim to status in a world where that claim is tenuous at best. It’s about the writing life being the life of the outsider with the goods on the insiders.

It’s obvious that sheer egoism should not be a principal motivation for a reader. No reader should read Fyodor Dostoevsky, Simone Weil, or Samuel Beckett because people will be impressed. Maybe some start out with such motivations. We’ve all known a few who harbor this obscure form of egotism, but it quickly corrects itself when one is faced with the considerable moral, aesthetic, and intellectual complexity with which reading seriously forces one to contend while no one is looking on approvingly. Readers’ testimonial of their own virtue for reading is not only at loggerheads with reading as a moral act, but it won’t impress many either, except for those who already know better about the moral seriousness of reading. But readers should show some sympathy to this failing in writers, because without having a message with which to penetrate the world, writers are condemned to desolation rather than dignified solitude.

By the time he reached his teens, Orwell had fallen under the spell of the aesthetic power of words themselves; something, of course, every reader should want too. He describes it simply as “perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.” For readers, the consideration of style is obviously of great import as well. Engaging seriously with the style of another’s work is a moral act, consisting of honest and robust engagement with the writer’s aesthetic. If done with abiding care, there’s nothing left to do but recast your preconceptions. To engage with the style of another deepens your sense of others’ sense of themselves beyond mere aesthetic contrivance; through their work you assimilate their ideas and expressions in the pursuit of a greater moral way of being in the world. Art is not didactic but cooperative.

But we’ve reached an impasse. Orwell writes of the strong political motivations of writers, too, and, given the moral obligations of the reader, there’s a clear divergence of purpose. The writer’s purpose is to persuade, maybe even coerce. For all of the great effort and fortitude writing entails, it would seem absurd to undertake such an enterprise with no designs on actually changing anyone’s mind, as if writing were some protracted venting session or daydream. Writers must follow their imperatives, but readers have imperatives too, namely the tending of their evolving moral purpose (but also, readers want to have fun, to pass the time!)

To read with moral purpose is contrary to partisan advocacy. It is to perpetually undermine the stability of perspective, to proliferate biases only to destabilize other biases. Reading should undermine the ideology of the writer by integrating it into a more personally comprehensive tapestry of ideas and expressions. Ideology, though inevitable in the crafting of policy and the maintenance of political alliances, is ultimately an intellectual vice if its rigidity hampers a reader’s moral inquiry. Reading then is an antidote to rigid ideology, a bulwark against the imposition of ego on the collective. It is writers who are instrumental in the formulation and advancement of values, but it is readers who bear within themselves the weight of the evolving structure of values.

Orwell asserts great writing is motivated by ego, aesthetics, or politics, yes, but a writer will produce “nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality. Good prose is like a window pane.” So writing, he says in the end, demands self-denial, humility, in the same way reading does. And where does this self-denial get you, whether as a writer or a reader? Out of the cacophonous, morally corrosive bubble isolating those with a “producerist” fixation on “work.” As we lose moral sense to venal preoccupation, we have nothing left to cling to but the trappings of ego amidst the shifting sands of social or institutional status. But we want to be in control of ourselves, we want to chart our own moral destiny, but we face a paradox: we must deny ourselves to gain control of ourselves. To read, we must mute our desires to refine our moral sense.

A writer’s direct influence ends with the reader’s integration of it. From there, it’s up to the reader to carry it forth into the world from which the writer often feels so isolated. Too often we consider reading a solely intellectual or imaginative act, but that is a failure of imagination. The reader is the guardian of the writer’s intellectual and aesthetic daring, but that guardianship requires courage and fortitude, since it’s in the pursuit of evolving moral purpose. A reader can only look back and, by doing so, shape what’s to come.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a writer and editor based in Chicago.