A phrase I often use is “the reading life.” Someone recently asked me exactly what I meant by it. On the surface, defining the reading life seems like it should be straightforward. It gets complicated, however, by the word “reading.”   

The American Heritage (my dictionary of choice) lists seven definitions for the word “reading.” The word “read” is even more challenging. We depend on the word’s context to determine the right choice. For example, a “reading” is a public event, but it can also be an individual reader’s personal interpretation of a work. The word “reads” can be the act of reading, as in “Sally reads Shakespeare.” It can also mean a type of book — beach “reads.” 

If the word isn’t complicated enough, just think about all the reasons we have for reading something. We all know readers, me included, who read for escape, who want something light to take them away from the stresses of their everyday lives. For some readers, a book is a prescription for a good night’s sleep. For others, reading is something that wakes them up to new ideas, insights, and feelings.   

Sometimes, we seek a story to read, and sometimes we look for a text that can tell us the answer to a question or provide us with a solution to a problem. In many cases, we might not even be aware of what is happening to us when we read. In her work with readers, Catherine Sheldrick Ross found that readers frequently discovered new or expanded insights and awareness about themselves, others, and the world through books. She also found that often, these learnings were not the reason the reader started reading — they just happened. 

It is the evanescent quality of reading that makes it so hard to establish the value of reading a book or reading in general. Understanding how reading feeds and sustains us requires us to reflect not on the book but on what reading it does. It requires us to examine our experience. I’m not sure many of the readers Ross worked with could have articulated what they found through reading if she had not asked them about books that made a difference in their lives. 

For me, the reading life involves reflecting on the following: 

  1. Expanding my understanding of what I like and why I like it. 

  1. Thinking about the ways I discover new books, authors, and genres and how I might increase my access to those ways. 

  1. Exploring how reading enriches my understanding and appreciation of myself, others, and the world. 

  1. Understanding the role that others have in supporting my reading by sharing what we are reading. 

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the fact that when I read, I am not only a consumer. I am also an author engaged in creating a work that, in many ways, transcends the work of the book’s author. While the author of the book I am reading provides a foundation, my reading results in my rewriting the author’s original work and reading it into my own life. The life I enrich through reading. 

We live in a world where the value of reading is not questioned. Even those who would limit the right to read freely acknowledge the power of reading through their efforts to limit exposure to the materials that concern them. The climate we find ourselves in asks us to examine the essence of our work with readers. The library and we as its representatives are not only a source of delivery where a reader obtains their next book. It is not only a service that supports the discovery of that next book. It has the potential to be a place where readers engage not only with a book but with the experiences, changes, and growth that result from reading it.  

By not only asking a reader to tell us about a book they have read and enjoyed but by exploring with them the four aspects of the reading life mentioned above, we have the opportunity and responsibility to help readers connect to their reading life. When we do this, the library becomes the place where readers engage with their reading life and come to see that life and their right to live it as something that should be cherished and protected.  

I’m not willing to go as far as Socrates. I do feel, however, that when we only consume a book, we miss something. We miss an opportunity to live more fully into the story and its power to transform us. Supporting each other and the readers, we serve in examining not only the books they read but the difference those books make is an opportunity we should not leave unexamined. 

Duncan Smith is the co-founder of NoveList and currently serves as EBSCO Information Service’s Chief Strategist for Public Libraries. He is currently reading American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin and Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine.