Why do we read? – Beth Arrowsmith

Why do we read? How does reading contribute to our lives? In order to answer these two questions we can go back in time thousands of years, to the time of the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Alongside of their Egyptian and Chinese counterparts the Sumerians developed a system of writing through the use of pictographs to represent objects or visible subjects, for example a flood, allowing a very simple message to be understood by all people.  But the Sumerians realised that something was missing from these early attempts at written communication which was the emotional content of human interaction and life, for example being able to express the idea of ‘the will of the gods’. * So, the Sumerians developed a system whereby ‘concepts’ could be communicated. This system became known as Cuneiform and was the direct ancestor of alphabetised language. For me, this is the essence of what it means to write and read. Not only can we gain practical information, we can also experience something of the emotion of the writer.

To this day we use written language to communicate certain emotions and experiences that  young people can engage with and feel a part of. The Harry Potter phenomenon is a great example of a fictional world that has come alive through its readers. The feelings of excitement and wonderment inspire the audience’s own creative imagination. Young writers of today have been encouraged and inspired by the likes of J.K. Rowling and other authors’ successes to try their own hand at fictional writing. A new community of young writers now inhabit the ‘virtual’ world of Fanfiction, giving opportunities, opening new doors for not only the writers but young people like myself who love to read their work. Websites such as wattpad.com have thousands of books from many different authors and genres and some have gone on to be published. I love how I can find myself completely submerged in another place and time without having to leave the comfort of my own home. Having a young audience engage with fiction is not only exciting but, extraordinarily valuable. This has been shown by The Institute of Education who conducted a study that conclusively found that children who read for pleasure are more successful in all areas of their studies, as well as being personally more fulfilled and happier individuals.** Malorie Blackman expressed exactly the same kind of thinking when she said reading, ‘opens doors and creates life opportunities.’

An extremely interesting debate has been taking place in some American newspapers about whether, ‘reading makes us more moral’.*** In response to this Annie Murphy Paul stated something more profound that ‘deep reading…makes us smarter and nicer.’ That in fact reading great literary works helps us empathise and understand other people, which is what makes us more connected. My favourite books may not, at this moment in time, be considered ‘great literary works’ but they still have much to say and I still have much to learn from them. It isn’t simply about telling a story it is about feeling and experiencing and what it is to be human. So perhaps we ought to remember the ancient Sumerians who saw the need to express these same thoughts through their early writings.

Beth Arrowsmith





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