Sam Radford

April 29, 2021

Why we read: escaping reality or exploring it?

My brother-in-law, Russell Thompson, posted some interesting reflections on why we read on his blog recently. 

The whole piece is worth your time, but his conclusion stands out:

So reading is about escaping reality and also facing it. It can be about dreams and reality, sadness and happiness, thinking and not thinking. It’s a landscape of desires and motives. A full bookshelf is a well-stocked cocktail bar, ready to take whatever order you fancy giving. 

This rings true for me too. I read different books for different reasons, at different times. 

Broadly speaking, I have two books on the go at any one time. There’s always a novel I’m reading, and then there’s a ‘learning book’ I’m reading too. And, on the surface, they split quite nicely into one being about escaping reality and the other exploring it.

The truth is less clear cut. Plenty of learning takes place when reading a novel. Novels can transport me to unknown places, and open my eyes to people and cultures I’d never experience otherwise. Much of the fiction I read is eye-opening. They may not always be factual books, but they sure can carry a lot of truth. 

And, on the flip side, there’s no shortage of non-fiction books that can be entertaining and escapist, not at all focussed on trying to help me face reality. That’s not a criticism; just an observation. Fiction or non-fiction does not neatly correlate to escapist or explorative.

Not only that, plenty of books, fiction and non-fiction alike, allow us to both escape and explore reality in the same read. It’s not just that books can be more than one thing though; what we’re looking for as readers is not constrained to a single thing either. As Russell writes:

We can’t narrow down the reader’s motives to just one or two. There can be many reasons, sometimes all mixed together.

So it’s no surprise that the lines are blurred. Which is why we need our shelves to be stocked with a mix of every kind of book. Sometimes I need an ‘easy’ novel or a light non-fiction read that is purely about distraction. But other times I want more; I want to be challenged and provoked.

Wonderfully, there is no shortage of every kind of book I could wish for. I don’t think I’m going to be running out of options any time soon!

And, to answer the question that titles this post, books enable us to explore reality, escape reality, and everything and more in-between. There is no either-or. Phew. 

–Sam

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