What makes us read? Literary bright lights weigh in

Writer Barbara Nichol continues exploring shared assumptions about reading with original thinkers — writers, critics, scholars and journalists. This is the final part in a three-part series called Reading with a Grain of Salt.

Original thinkers in the book world speak off the cuff in a three-part IDEAS series

We make a lot of assumptions about reading. For example, we seem to connect reading with intelligence. It appears that — more than all other interests in the arts — reading is seen as the ultimate intellectual benchmark. (Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock)

* Originally published on June 26, 2020. This is the final episode in a three-part series on IDEAS called Reading With a Grain of Salt.

We make many assumptions about reading. 

For example, that reading a lot means you're smart. That books are objects to be treasured. That reading is good for you. And that there are certain books you should read, while others aren't worth paying attention to.

Writer Barbara Nichol explores all these assumptions with writers, critics, scholars and journalists — all of whom are widely recognized for their insights, erudition and original minds.

Here are some excerpts from the third and final episode of her series, Reading With A Grain Of Salt.

Journalist and novelist Caleb Crain on why women read more than men

"There's some evidence that women spend more time reading than men do. It's historically been true that the novel, for example … leisure reading, most of the readers have been women."

Journalist and author Caleb Crain writes about reading patterns for The New Yorker. His latest novel is Overboard. (Peter-Terzian)

"In the 18th century in England and in the 19th century in America, this was a trope of the culture. Pundits would warn that women's morals are being loosened by all these novels they're reading, especially those that have been translated from French. 

"I think more likely the explanation is that women were not allowed in the workplace. They had more time on their own. These days, you wouldn't think that's true, but women still are bigger readers than men. I don't know whether that's just because their habits haven't shifted, even though the culture has shifted, or whether there's some underlying reason."

Author John Carey on the benefits of book clubs

John Carey is the emeritus Merton Professor of Literature at Oxford University. His books include The Intellectuals and the Masses and What Good Are The Arts? (Matt Writtle)

"I think it's the kind of equivalent to reading literature as an undergraduate. You get into discussion with your fellow readers and with someone who knows a bit more than you do.

"My wife actually belongs to a book club, they meet once a month. They read, often two books. They dot around from modern novels to classics, and they get about — I gather — 10 people at a time. The whole club is 15. So it's a restricted number. More like a university seminar, really. And from what I hear, the discussions are rather like that. 

"When they talk, they discover what other people think and that's important. It can suddenly make you feel: 'Huh, I hadn't thought of that. That's a new way of looking at this bit of the novel.' When my wife comes back from her book club, that's the kind of thing she says. Had you thought of that? And I often hadn't thought that. I may not agree, of course, but at least it's a discussion — a real discussion because it's got a new idea in it." 

Fran Lebowitz on the intellectual task of the writer

"Writing, of all the art forms, is the most directly cognitive. It is 100 per cent cognitive, which is not true of other art forms. We think in words.

"When I was young and I first came to New York, I met a lot of painters. I was always so shocked that almost every painter I've ever known listens to music in their studio. This struck me as unbelievable. How could you concentrate when you have music playing? And then I realized that painters are not trying to concentrate. They're trying to un-concentrate, you know. They're trying to take leave of their senses. And so that is why they can listen to music. Visual artists are trying to detach from the cognitive process — and writers are not."

Suggested books on reading and writing

On Histories And Stories by A.S. Byatt

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan

The Pleasure Of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books that Inspired Them, edited by Antonia Fraser.

Howards End Is On The Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

The Year Of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

Proust And the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Nothing Remains The Same: Rereading And Remembering by Wendy Lesser

Tolstoy And The Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading Writing, and the World of Books by Robertson Davies

Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

Great Books by David Denby

Books For Living by Will Schwalbe

The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose

The Lost Art Of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin

The Books In My Life by Henry Miller

Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arnold Bennett

Guests in this episode:

Fran Lebowitz is the author of Metropolitan Life and Social StudiesThe Fran Lebowitz Reader and the children's book Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet The Pandas. Lebowitz is the subject of an upcoming Netflix series directed by Martin Scorsese.

Nick Hornby is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and award-winning author. Among his novels: Funny GirlHigh Fidelity, A Long Way DownAbout A Boy and Juliet, Naked. His non-fiction books include 31 Songs and Fever Pitch. The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of his columns in The Believer magazine, for which he continues to write. He also wrote the Emmy Award-winning television series State Of The Union. In 2010, he co-founded the children's writing charity The Ministry of Stories in East London.

Sarah Bakewell is the author of biographical and philosophical works including At The Existentialist Cafe: freedom, being and apricot cocktails and How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.

John Carey is the author of many books including The Accidental Professor: An Oxford Life in BooksWhat Good Are The Arts?The Intellectuals and The Masses, and A Little History of Poetry. He is the emeritus Merton Professor of Literature at the University of Oxford and a fellow of the British Academy and of The Royal Society of Literature.

Abigail Williams is a professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home.

Caleb Crain is the author of the novels Necessary Errors and Overthrow, as well as the scholarly study American Sympathy: Men, Friendship and Literature in the New Nation. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, n+1, and The New York Times Book Review. His blog is called Steamboats Are Ruining Everything

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of four collections of essays, the memoir An Open Book, which received the 2004 Ohioana Award for non-fiction, and On Conan Doyle, which received a 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His current project is an appreciation of late 19th- and early 20th-century British popular fiction, tentatively titled The Great Age of Storytelling.

* This episode was produced by Barbara Nichol. Interview excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?