Essays & Opinion Professor Wu's Rulebook

Why do we read? From Galileo to Umberto Eco, mankind’s greatest thinkers consider humanity’s relationship with books and literature

Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We’ve looked before at the reasons great writers choose to sit down and begin writing. These reasons include wanting to discover the answer to some mystery, simple fun, the pursuit of happiness, personal discovery and self-exploration, and because the thought of not writing simply hurt too much. But why are we, as a species, so drawn to the stories these writers write? Why do homo sapiens so desire books and literature?

In rebuttal to those who might contend that we somehow do not need books, there have been wonderful arguments made in favour of literature, explaining what it does for the human mind and the human spirit. Yet this does not quite answer the question of what it is that draws human beings to books and to literature. It doesn’t answer why we have, for centuries, even erected great buildings in which we can store our texts and stories.

Scientists, artists, politicians and explorers have explained, sometimes beautifully, why books are essential. They are, for instance, “fundamental to all human achievement and progress”, according to Astronaut Neil Armstrong. But is logical reasoning like this the true reason we are drawn to books, why we worship them? Is there more to it, something spiritual, perhaps?

Nearly half a millennium ago, the answers to such questions were pondered by Galileo Galilei, one of humanity’s greatest science-crusaders and seekers of knowledge and understanding.

Galileo Galilei

In Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, Gelileo observes that books have an uncanny power to transport us, across time and space, into the mind of another person. And suggests that we are drawn to books, and derive such pleasure from reading, because literature is a means of connecting human beings and human ideas across boundaries – and is, in this way, a means of both time travel and telepathy.

He writes:

“With what admiration the reading of excellent poets fills anyone who attentively studies the invention and interpretation of concepts! And what shall I say of architecture? What of the art of navigation?

But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!

Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of mankind.”

Several hundred years later, and the same thought processes continue to abide as the world’s greatest thinkers ponder the book as one of these most “admirable inventions of mankind”.

Indeed, the late, great Italian novelist, essayist and philosopher Umberto Eco, peers back half a millennia to Galileo’s time, and discusses the perennial rewards of the book as a medium or irreplaceable humanity:

“Alterations of the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon. When designers try to improve something like the corkscrew, their success is very limited; most of their “improvements” don’t even work. Philippe Starck attempted an innovative lemon-squeezer; his version was very handsome, but it lets the pits through. The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes. Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing.”

It is the abiding qualities of books – of writing, stories and literature – that make them so entwined with human culture. In the same essay, Eco considers just this, positing that reading is almost a biological or natural reflex of humanity:

“We can think of writing as an extension of the hand, and therefore as almost biological. It is the communication tool most closely linked to the body. Once invented, it could never be given up… Our modern inventions — cinema, radio, Internet — are not biological.”

If, after reading this, you have that need to scratch your natural instinct therefore and pick up a book, why not try one of those books everyone says they’ve read (even if they actually haven’t). Perhaps you could also consider what the new digital world means for books and literature. Whatever you do, make sure you sign up for our newsletter – a free, regular digest of everything interesting.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: