Why do we read? What do we get out of this activity? These are questions that I keep tossing around, searching for possible answers in the stacks of books overcrowding my office. But, in the search for an answer, I’m finding incomplete evidence. The plurality of “we” in the question resists any definitive answer. How can I say why you or anybody reads? The best I can work with is the scattered insights in novels, essays, and criticism; different authors offering up to readers a glimpse of their sacred, individual relationship to books. Usually snuck into the narrative of a novel, these moments, where the author reveals his/her view of reading, often seem randomly thrown in, disruptive to the drive of the plot. But in Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy, reading is a transformative activity that shapes the very direction of Wright’s life. As a black male raised in the South in the 1920s, Wright’s reading practices exceeded that society’s normative expectations, and were even outright questioned as challenges to white authority. To be a black reader in the South was dangerous, for reading demonstrated the desire to expand one’s knowledge and potentially one’s position in the world, a move that would challenge the dominating rule of white supremacy of that time.
Throughout Black Boy, the question, “why do you read,” is repeatedly posed by white and blacks alike. Wright’s response poignantly resonates with the ideas about emotion, the imagination, and a reader’s relationship with texts I’ve been considering lately. For Wright, reading is about expanding human potential. In reading, he seeks “new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different” (272-3). Reading allows Wright to see new perspectives, but it is more than just learning new knowledge about the world. Rather, the activity of reading evokes feeling in the reader, forging an emotional experience that connects us with that new perspective. Wright compares this encompassing emotional experience to a drug state: altering his mood and shifting his perspective, “reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days” (273). Through these “books that opened up new avenues of feeling and seeing,” Wright learns of and feels a wider spectrum of human emotion than ever before (275). Living under the segregation and violent racism of the South, Wright’s restricted existence prevented him from experiencing the freedom and fullness of life that he reads about in novels. He learns “that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach” (274). The altered perspective and new emotional awareness gained by reading causes Wright to reevaluate the reality around him. He looks at his world in a more critical way: “My reading had created a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived and tried to make a living, and that sense of distance was increasing each day” (277).
Reading springs in him “a new hunger,” for reading “made me see what was possible, what I had missed” (274). Reading not only shows Wright new perspectives and feelings, but also reveals the horizon of infinite and unknown possibility. As he becomes a young adult, Wright dreams of moving North to escape his restricted and threatened life in the South. His dreams of the future are inspired by the enlarging perspectives and limitless possibilities that he had gained from books. Observing around him a world of black submission and defeat, Wright wonders,
“what was it that made me conscious of possibilities? For where in this southern darkness had I caught a sense of freedom? Why was it that I was able to act upon vaguely felt notions? What was it that made me feel things deeply enough for me to try to order my life by my feelings? The external world of whites and blacks, which was the only world that I had ever known, surely had not evoked in me any belief in myself. The people I had met had advised and demanded submission. What, then, was I after? How dare I consider my feelings superior to the gross environment that sought to claim me?” (282)
His answer: “It had been only through books—at best, no more than vicarious cultural transfusions—that I had managed to keep myself alive in a negatively vital way. Whenever my environment failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books (282). For Wright, reading expands his human potential, providing him access to new perspectives to reevaluate his own world, invoking new feelings that expand his range of emotion, and inspiring his dreams of infinite future possibilities. For me, this is a powerful response to that central question, “Why do we read?”
Wright, Richard. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper & Row, 1945.
Image Credit: Black Boy Book Cover