Thinking Aloud

Why read? For the sheer joy of it

Reading should be promoted not just for profit, but also for pleasure

There are few things in life that are sadder, it seems to me, than hearing a person, especially a young one, declare that he does not like to read.

You know the usual reasons given: it is boring, the mind wanders, there is no time, and so much else to do.

Whenever I hear this, my thoughts race ahead to the inevitable closing of minds, and possibilities, that sadly but surely must follow.

Little wonder then that the authorities here have been fretting about how to promote reading, in the light of a recent survey which found that less than half of those polled had read a literary book in the past year. Plans have been drawn up to do so, at home, in schools and libraries and even the workplace.

A few weeks ago, at my instigation, my colleagues from the ST newsroom pitched in, with our writers like Sumiko Tan, Rohit Brijnath, Akshita Nanda and many others extolling the virtues of reading, reminiscing about how they came to discover its joys, and sharing some of this in a special Ode to Reading edition of Sunday Life (If you missed it, check it out at tags/reading-special).

The approach taken in this effort was shaped by a conversation with one of my bright young colleagues. We had been discussing what we in the media, who have a vested interest in people reading, might do to give it a boost.

"It's a lost cause, Warren," she cried. "Young people are not going to read just because we tell them to."

I was struck by a wave of "panic and emptiness", as novelist E.M. Forster might put it, on hearing this. But I realised later that there was wisdom in her remark.

It arises from that age-old saw on the art of writing - show, don't tell - which, I suppose, applies as much to making the case for reading.

In other words, rather than simply proselytising on the value of reading - or horror of horrors, enforcing it in schools through compulsory reading courses, grades and examinations, as some have suggested - a better approach would be to help people discover how much pleasure they might derive from reading, and just what they might be missing if they did not.

So here's my simple suggestion to those charged with giving reading a push: make it fun - focus on the pleasure, not just the profit, to be had from reading.

Here's my simple suggestion to those charged with giving reading a push: make it fun - focus on the pleasure, not just the profit, to be had from reading.

The best exponent of the joys of reading I know is the late, great British columnist and polemicist Bernard Levin. His ode to reading is set out in an engaging book titled Enthusiasms: An Irresistible Celebration Of The Joys Of Life. I first read it as a young man in my 20s, then seeking my own understanding of what made for a good life, and have returned to it time and again over the years.

I sought out my well-worn copy recently and found the pages where Levin speaks about reading. He writes: "The pleasures of reading are innocent, inexhaustible, incomparable, incorruptible, incalculable, and infinite, and no one who can read at all is shut out from enjoying them. Age, frailty, poverty, ignorance, isolation, pain, fear - these will inhibit almost any pleasure in time, and immediately place an insurmountable barrier before some of them. But the pleasures of reading are not to be denied by any or all of these handicaps..."

Levin goes on to describe his favourite authors, singling out the French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne. "The source of pleasure in reading - the readability, that is, of an author - is to be found in certain qualities of which Montaigne has more than any other writer, and the surest clue we get of these qualities is the feeling we get when we meet such a writer, dead for centuries perhaps, and recognise him at once as a friend."

Discovering Levin in my youth, with his passion for his various pursuits, I often figured that I had found in him, at least a kindred spirit, if not a friend.

The same sentiments arose when I chanced upon a quirky little book by the much-acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami, titled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In it, he recounts the joys and pains he has experienced as a writer and long-distance runner.

He says: "Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he's accomplished what he set out to do, and if he can't, then he'll feel he hasn't. Even if he doesn't break the time he'd hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction of having done his very best - and possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process - then that in itself is an accomplishment, a positive feeling he can carry over to the next race.

"The same can be said about my profession. In the novelist's profession, as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won, and critics' praise serve as outward standards of accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matter. What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you've set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people you can easily come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can't fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn't seek validation in the outwardly visible."

My thoughts exactly! Murakami seemed to not just read but also speak my mind. We had similar sentiments and insights, despite our differences in age, race, culture and background. Our common pursuits revealed a shared humanity. Besides, I kept turning the pages as Murakami took me to places I have never been - from Kauai in Hawaii to Kanagawa in Japan - and introduced me to situations and characters I might never have encountered.

Now, of course, not everyone will enjoy running, nor write for a living, as I do. But, with a bit of patience and perseverance, each of us might uncover books, authors, subjects, styles of writing that speak to us in our own way, and that journey of discovery might be a joy in itself too.

Levin sums this up thus: "I did not, however, read those authors in order to assume the mantle of their beliefs; I read them for pleasure. There are books we are obliged to read; for examinations, for professional reasons, to provide us with necessary or useful information, as a favour to a friend, to strengthen or counter an argument. But that is the profit of reading; we pick up a book, and enjoy it, for pleasure alone, and whatever of power and glory, solace and truth, it may contain, it will work no effect on us if it does not provide us with pleasure on its reading."

Last week, I dropped by the public library in Bishan and was cheered to find it packed with people. Just about every seat was filled with readers, young and old, poring over books, magazines and e-readers, as well as their smartphones. Most looked like they were there because they wanted to be, and appeared to be enjoying themselves. Whether reading for profit or pleasure, they seemed to share a quiet gratitude at having stumbled upon an enchanting world of books, filled with information, imagination and ideas.

So, why read? Do it simply for the sheer joy of it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Why read? For the sheer joy of it '. Print Edition | Subscribe