What, if anything, do the books you chose to read say about who you are?
Many people find that they have a favorite genre which monopolizes their reading time, while others–myself included–favor an eclectic assortment of books. Stereotypes are pervasive. Romance novel readers are romantic women disappointed by the state of their own love lives. Stuffy old men read political nonfiction and history books. Mystery novels are for middle-aged women who enjoy puzzles and the challenge of solving problems because their own lives have become mundane. Literary fiction readers are sophisticated and judgmental, prone to dropping books with flat characters or poor quality prose.
But these stereotypes only scratch the surface, if they manage to do that at all. Perhaps instead what we should ask ourselves is why do people read what they read?
On a most basic level, we read to be entertained, to occupy our mind and time. Of course, what we find pleasure in varies not only by person but also over the course of an individual’s life, or even depending on one’s mood. Some books make for good bedtime reading but don’t seem as interesting in the light of day, while other books are simply too heavy to read when you’re exhausted.
We also read to escape our lives and to fulfill our sense of adventure. It can be satisfying to imagine that you are the heroine of a romance novel, the detective of a crime fiction work, or the king of a mystical realm. Books allow us to experience worlds beyond our normal daily existence, to dream that a sci-fi future or fantastical alternate dimension may actually exist somewhere.
Sometimes we seek out books to feel connected to an author. In the meeting of two minds, somehow we feel less lonely, that there is a kindred spirit out there who feels like we do. Or, we wish that certain characters could leap out from the pages of a book or that we could fall in, like in Inkheart. We want to socialize with Scout or the broody, handsome vampire in the big white house.
Other times we develop a special bond with a given character, and begin to identify with them. One recent study from Geoff Kaufman of Dartmouth University even suggests, if this connection to a given character is strong enough, we begin to subconsciously become more like them in real life. Phrased differently, perhaps we find certain fictional characters aspirational and read about them as part of the process of discovering ourselves.
In keeping with this psychological vein, our reading habits also help us to define, maintain, and project a certain self-image. If you fancy yourself as an intellectual, perhaps you enjoy reading philosophy on the subway or a book in a foreign language at your favorite coffee shop. Or, you read hip books and celebrity memoirs to feel pop culture savvy. On the flip side, we occasionally hide the fact that we enjoy certain books or avoid them altogether to escape a perceived social stigma. What you refuse to read can say as much about you as the books you enjoy.
We also read because we want to increase our knowledge about a given subject or person. Nonfiction, historical fiction, or even memoirs can help us to appreciate the world around us, past or present, in a capacity beyond our own experiences.
Information can be gleaned about a person based on what they read. For example, you might surmise that I enjoy culinary history because I have read and reviewed books on this topic. Or, that I appreciate French and Japanese culture, because I like Murakami Haruki, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Les Miserables.
In the end, however, I think why we read a given book ultimately says more about us than what we actually read.