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Why we read

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C.S. Lewis is supposed to have said that we write not to be understood, but to understand. Of course, writing can be – and very often is – a screen onto which we project our opinions, beliefs, and experiences for the world (or a few blog followers) to see and understand. But writing, as any writer will tell you, is by and large a cathartic experience. The very opinions, beliefs, and experiences we are trying to recount aren’t perfectly lucid to our own eyes until we’re actually done writing them. Well what does this have to do with why we read?


I don’t quite view writing to be some antipodean friend of reading; that is, I don’t think they’re opposites. They are, however, two wildly different adventures indissolubly bound together. But in this case, if we write not to be understood, but to understand, then we read not to understand, but to be understood. Let me say that again: we read not to understand, but to be understood. Again, of course we read to seek understanding, as anyone who has studied anything knows. But frequently when we read, especially something like a novel or a poem, we take part in an experience of identification. The characters we love (and loathe) the most, the parts which touch us profoundly, the words which remain etched in our memory are those we identify with the most. Not always, of course. But very often. The identification is part affirming; it speaks to who we are. In this way, we read to be understood.