The Reader’s DNA


1. Why are You Reading?

In the last two or three years, and I can’t say precisely why this is the case, I’ve become more and more of a “softie.” One of the creeds I’ve come to live by is that there is no legitimate reason to bully another. I do on occasion fall short and find myself taking on the role of the aggressor, but I’ve been conscious to check myself against the ideal that this is simply wrong.

Much of the bullying I witness, and I can’t decide if I witness more as an adult than as a child, all seems to boil down to absurd and petty reasoning. I was a bit of a chunky kid, so I was certainly reminded of that frequently. That went away by the time I reached high school, however, by which time I endured the absurd form of ridicule that until this day still causes me despair with regard to the future of the human race. I was asked constantly, “Why are you reading?” Sometimes it was modified as “Why do you read so much?”

On more than one occasion, no word of a lie, I heard not a question, but the statement, “Stop reading!” It wasn’t a threat  to put down the book or face the consequences, but more of an expression of annoyance on the part of my peers. It seemed, at least from my point of view, that the sight of someone with a book constantly in front of them was strange to the point of being revolting. I don’t know with certainty the reasoning behind this and I don’t want to speak for others, but this is my take.

I do want to address, however, one of the reasons I cared so much for reading and continue to do so. It was not the usual practical or utilitarian reasons to read, such as entertainment value, travel without having to leave one’s room, or for greater knowledge, though these reasons can never be denied. Reading was and is something that I do not just because it serves practical purposes, but because I feel compelled to.

I can certainly say why reading is important with regard to educational and cognitive development and that it is to be valued for such reasons, but I could never quite find the language or logic behind why literature, and any reading material in general, felt so indispensable and at times like a religious experience. It was not just a hobby or something that I did in my spare time, but an activity which was often more capable of bringing about happiness or ecstasy than any other. In this sense, I often have the hunch that I was born a reader rather than made into one over time. It was, to employ an overused phrase, in my DNA. I just couldn’t say why.

2. A Blessed Diagnosis 

More recently, I’ve come to grasp this part of myself a bit more, almost as one might understand a condition through diagnosis by a medical professional. It seems, according to an emerging body of literature, that I am what’s called an introvert. The traits most immediately associated with this categorization tend to be negative, at least as far as the greater part of society seems to be concerned. Introverts are supposedly anti-social, perhaps a bit arrogant, and shy to the point that they need to be saved by the extrovert counterparts.

I do not consider myself anti-social, rude, arrogant, or shy, and I hope that no one who knows me personally would think this way of me. Introversion does not entail social ineptitude. In a recent interview with Scientific American, author Susan Cain frames introversion as a preference rather than an affliction. Cain says,

Introverts prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments, while extroverts need higher levels of stimulation to feel their best. Stimulation comes in all forms – social stimulation, but also lights, noise, and so on. Introverts even salivate more than extroverts do if you place a drop of lemon juice on their tongues! So an introvert is more likely to enjoy a quiet glass of wine with a close friend than a loud, raucous party full of strangers.

I don’t wish to speak for all introverts, but I think it is safe to say that we are not averse to the company of others and we are perfectly capable of leading or collaborating within a team environment. We prefer, however, to steer clear of environments comprised of large crowds where attention must be attained through gregariousness and noise. We prefer not to have to raise our voices or divide our attention between large numbers of individuals.

I personally don’t get terribly excited over the typical banter or small-talk that one finds in large social environments and thus prefer not to offer any of it myself. Observation has always been much more stimulating and rewarding, and the thoughts running through my head have always proven perfectly amusing. Cain seems to agree when she remarks, “I have such a strong inner life that I’m never bored and only occasionally lonely. No matter what mayhem is happening around me, I know I can always turn inward.”

While some may get their thrills and inspiration from constant engagement with others and would slowly go insane were they condemned to silence or solitude, solitude is the environment within which the introvert thrives. Learning, inspiration, and stimulation  happens within the confines of our own mental life. We crave the silence from which others so often retreat.

3. The Reader’s DNA

This aspect of my personality, which I believe is not as peculiar as we might imagine it to be among the general population, seems to me to serve as the prime reasoning for my love of reading not as something practical, but as something that is nourishing for the soul. It is the slowness of reading, the dialogue with oneself that one engages in while reading without being rushed to take a stand or draw conclusions or be subject to the judgment of others, that makes reading such a source of comfort and happiness.

Reading is perhaps the most effective and enjoyable way to engage that mechanism that the introvert values so much, the inner life of the mind. To be incredibly broad, slow and thoughtful meditation upon a text invites the reader to understand the major questions and themes put before them along with the intricacies of the story and characters, which in turn is how the reader augments and understands their own self. Reading, for the solitary reader, for the introvert, is the greatest source of learning and growth imaginable. To be free from any and all constraints while delving into a text is the greatest blessing imaginable.

Ironically, reading makes the introvert feel less alone. Ned Resnikoff notes that David Foster Wallace defended the practice of writing as one that made him feel “unalone.” Through reading as well, the introvert sees their mind light up at new understandings of the world and of themselves, brought to them in the calm and gentle context of solitude. Resnikoff adds,

I call this deep reading, and to me it is the heart and soul of literature. It is that sublime moment in which a dark, hidden portion of your own mind is brought into the light to observe. It is when you get to confront, observe, and learn about your own consciousness. And, perhaps most importantly, it is the moment in which you discover that these things you thought were your burdens and blessings, and yours alone, belong to others as well. It makes you feel a strange sort of intimacy and kinship with the writer who has found these things within himself and put them on display.

I am not in anyway discounting the value of social environments or claiming that perpetual solitude is the ideal, but only that it is not strange or bizarre to crave such a thing. It may not be the preference of the majority of society as a whole, but a good number of us find our greatest contentment in solitary reading. It is where we grow, where we learn, where we find joy, and for this there is simply no substitute.

I wish I could have said this in a more articulate manner, leaving no doubt as to why reading is a necessity for me. I also cannot, and I don’t think anyone can, explain what causes someone to be an introvert. What I’ve said here is all that I can offer. I read because I must.

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