Why read? The answer lies within you

The motivation to pick up a book is tied to what you hope to gain from reading it

I have been hit, over and over again in the last few months, by the arguments for reading books.

In print and online, by friends and social media, the constant refrain, following a survey that reported low reading rates here and the recent launch of the National Reading Movement, has been: Read.

The persistent urging is always accompanied by the promise of a good outcome if you read.

Read, because falling into a fictional world can let you live as a mermaid/magician/whatever you fancy, suggested a social media post.

Read, because it can help you become less stressed, more empathetic and socially adept, some advised.

Read, because it will expand your horizon and make you knowledgeable, still others exhorted.

As someone who reads books, I could identify with many of the benefits cited. But none of these justifications lobbed at me moved me to pick up a book.

When I did - Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2014), Roz Chast's funny and deeply human memoir on her parents in their late years - it was because thoughts about ageing and caring for ageing parents had been popping up in my mind and conversations, and I was curious to find out how others experienced this phase of life.

The importance of reading books is undeniable and the reasons for doing so are many. But blasting an individual with one rationalisation after another for picking up a book, in the hope that he might be bulldozed into submission, might not work.

That I shared the sympathies of book-reading advocates, yet remained unmoved by their persuasions, struck me as curious. In trying to find an explanation for my paradoxical experience, I came upon writings and behavioural science studies about the complex dynamics between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is often regarded as an inherent enjoyment or interest in an activity that drives one to participate in it volitionally.

An extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is an incentive presented to an individual, such as rewards, that can spur the person to action.

The commonly held view is that if someone lacks intrinsic motivation to behave in a certain way, external incentives can influence the individual to act, but the inclination may be unsustainable.

What studies have found is that when external motivations, such as desirable goals, mesh with an individual's beliefs, values and/or needs, it can inspire a person to pick up and continue with certain behaviours.

The importance of reading books is undeniable and the reasons for doing so are many. But blasting an individual with one rationalisation after another to pick up a book, in the hope that he might be bulldozed into submission, might not work.

The motivation needs to be personal and it might be constructive, after having made a case for reading by stating its manifold benefits, to help an apathetic reader ask and find his answer to the question: Why should I read?, and then support him in following through with his decision.

A student who is not academically inclined and discouraged about his prospects in life might be personally motivated to read when he is made aware that reading, beyond textbooks and assessment books, can improve his opportunities in later life - this from a 2000 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And he might find help from the National Library Board's latest list of recommended reads for teenagers. The book, Extraordinary People: A Semi-Comprehensive Guide To Some Of The World's Most Fascinating Individuals (2015) by Michael Hearst, for example, could help the student discover that there are many paths to a fulfilling life and that his journey is his to chart.

A working adult nervous about adapting to the new economy might find that reading complements his other efforts to upgrade his professional skills. In an age where literacy is no longer defined narrowly by the ability to read and write, but by one's ability to advance his knowledge and skill set, a person who hones his reading literacy is well placed to participate in continuing education and training.

And he might be helped along in his pursuit by the National Library Board's Read@Work programme. Through the initiative, the state agency works with partner organisations to encourage employees to read regularly by providing curated reads that include business-relevant content.

A retiree looking for ways to catch up regularly with friends might find that doing so through a book club offers more than idle chat over periodically-scheduled lunch, tea or dinner. The National Reading Movement's website offers tips on how to start one.

If launching a book club from scratch proves to be too much of a hassle, one could join one of the many book clubs running at public libraries islandwide. Among them is The Big Read Meet, a monthly book club moderated by Straits Times journalist Cheong Suk-Wai at the Central Public Library, which focuses on contemporary non-fiction titles.

In time, those who are motivated to read because of various extrinsic reasons might develop a genuine interest and joy in the pursuit and become life-long readers.

And for those who already enjoy reading, identifying with external sources of motivation can only reinforce their desire to read.

So, why should you read? Your answer is waiting for you. Find it, and start.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Why read? The answer lies within you'. Print Edition | Subscribe