Why Do We Love Books?

When I was young, I imagined that my adult home would have a luxurious reading room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, soft leather chairs, and perfect lighting. If you’ve seen Lord Grantham’s library on Downton Abbey, you get the idea. Instead of amassing a fortune in books, however, I moved around the globe and had to shed books along the way. Though my childhood dream never materialized, I still experience a hushed thrill when entering a fine reading room, library, or bookstore.

Books are a hallmark of civilization, and open societies showcase them in architectural marvels akin to houses of worship. Last month, I visited the Library of Congress, which I found as breathtaking as any cathedral. (I feel sure that no comparable place exists in North Korea.) In a few days, I’m going to Buenos Aires, where I look forward to visiting the aptly named Libraria El Ateneo Grand Splendid.

Last month, I visited the Library of Congress, which I found as breathtaking as any cathedral.

Last month, I visited the Library of Congress, which I found as breathtaking as any cathedral.

There’s something both decadent and sublime about being in the company of many volumes of books. Throughout history, they’ve been sanctified, forbidden, and cherished. More recently, despite the fact that e-books are eliminating the need for physical bookshelves, the singular aesthetic appeal of books has given rise to library bars, library hotels, and library nightclubs around the globe.

Books hold such continual fascination that we even have a television channel dedicated to their discussion. And I was watching BookTV the other day when an interesting question was posed: “Why do you read?”

It’s such a simple question that you might scoff. But think about it. Our motives could be frivolous or profound at one moment, but they change daily throughout our lives. One of the panelists, I think it was Nicholson Baker, said that reading is a quest.

A quest! That seems right to me. Reading in search of information is of course quite straightforward, but at times we seek escape, or entertainment, or validation, or solace, or insight. We might want something fast-paced and skillfully plotted today, yet something gorgeously crafted tomorrow, with vibrant prose that demands to be savored.

Perhaps the thrill of the library comes from the scope of possibilities. Reading is utterly self-directed, and the array of choices is both exhilarating and intimidating.

So I ask: Why do you read? And how do you choose a book?

Data-mining algorithms have become ever more sophisticated, but human appetites seem to range beyond the computer’s comprehension. Search engines fixate on authors and titles we’ve already read. Perhaps the offered selections are limited by the programmers’ biases. But our interests change. We’re always seeking something new.

There's something decadent and sublime about many volumes of books. Witness El Ateneo Grand Splendid!

There’s something decadent and sublime about many volumes of books. Witness El Ateneo Grand Splendid!

Book reviews help, and social media are important, but there’s something special about the immediacy of one-on-one, reader-to-reader interaction. Thank god for librarians and booksellers.

I volunteered at an independent bookstore on Small Business Saturday and marveled at the conversations between the booksellers and the bibliophiles. While I was there, I started thinking about ways to connect with readers while supporting bookstores.

It’s a small gesture, but from January to June, I’ll donate a copy of The Edge of Normal to any book club that has a relationship with a local bookstore (in the US only, sorry). Just drop me a note at Carla@CarlaNorton.com, tell me about your reading group, and put me in touch with your bookstore. I’ll purchase the book and ask them to hold it for you to pick up.

Many bookstores offer discounts to book clubs, and I’d like to support local businesses and local jobs. (I travel a lot, so it may take me a couple of weeks to get back to you, so please allow for some delay.)

If you don’t belong to a book club, here’s information on how to form your own group: “10 Tips on Starting and Running a Book Club.”And fans of the mystery/thriller genre can find or form a reading group via Mystery Readers International.

Happy New Year, bibliophiles! May 2015 bring a reading feast!
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Carla Norton is a novelist, journalist, and true crime writer. Her first novel, The Edge of Normal, was a Thriller Award finalist. The sequel, What Doesn’t Kill Her, is coming in June. Her true crime books include Perfect Victim, which was put on the reading list for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. For more,  find Carla Norton on Goodreads or visit CarlaNorton.com.