In his essay Why Bother?, writer Jonathan Franzen questions our reasons for continuing to read and write in this age of technological distractions. Amidst his disillusionment, Franzen interviews psychologist Shirley Bryce Heath on the nature of formative reading. Heath uncovers a model of reader dubbed the “social isolate” – children who “take [the] sense of being different into an imaginary world”, and form their most important dialogues “with the authors of the books they read”. These readers are much more likely to become writers as adults, as Heath describes to Franzen, “You are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world.” Upon those “unpoetic polysyllables”, Franzen’s exhilaration of merely being recognized was his “confirmation of that descriptions truth”. That sense of identification, acceptance, and belonging had “revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”
I grew up with that same sense of deep and nagging love towards the written word. But as Franzen wrote, being a “social isolate” reader doesn’t “doom you to bad breath and poor party skills as an adult…… It’s just that at some point you’ll begin to feel a gnawing, almost remorseful need to be alone and do some reading — to reconnect to that community.” For a long time, reading was my way to escape a world that seemed too confusing and precarious to comprehend. As a child, I also took to narrating my own life like the plot of a novel, tinkering with voice and character and pacing. I don’t remember a time where there weren’t voices in my head, stringing frantic thoughts into narrative coherence. Academic culture back home in Hong Kong pushed us towards hard sciences and math, or at least more tangible branches of humanities, like law and history. But all I ever really wanted was to read, write, and create. As I grew older, I continued to read voraciously, but my ditties and story telling diminished under self consciousness and the monotony of academic writing.
Now, I write grasping for logic and reason but end up indecisive and verbose. My first drafts tend to meander without systematic cause or consequence, I explore without coming to conclusions. It’s because I write not to explain to others, but to explain to myself – to dig my way out of the avalanche of information, facts, quotes, song lyrics, jokes, studies, and headlines that we are bombarded with every day. And how to make sense of it all? I write first and form half hearted arguments later, like sifting through wreckage for one solid idea.
Regardless of how hard I try, my writing (no matter how stoic, scientific, or academic) also always gravitates towards the personal. Rudimentary philosophy taught me to “question everything”, and my one and only belief is to think deeply and write incisively about all that affects us, no matter how banal. So I end up talking about Glee and Gabriel Garcia Marquez with equal gravitas. I think a lot about oppression, about feminism, about television, about art. I write about pop culture and internet culture and the state of human rights in China. It seems only natural to me that this is all inherently related – an interdisciplinary web of personal passions, a series of small revolutions that have impacted me in one way or another.
Writing about things that I care about, however, can make it harder to improve and polish. It’s difficult for me to synthesize objective critique as only about my writing, rather than about my causes, or my passions, or even about me. My English teacher in high school taught us to divorce ourselves from the piece of work. “It’s out there now,” she said, “It exists beyond you as a writer, and they’re just words on a page.” But when I write about real events and real people I idolize, it gets a touch too tangible for me to fully let go. Still, I’d rather face those obstacles than fall into the trap of apathy and indifference.
The writers I hate are those who are bored and are boring. It’s a boredom that seeps through from every syllable – sometimes as dull monotony, and more oftentimes as incomprehensible trifle. I know that quality and value, especially in terms of personal interest, are incredibly subjective. But if there’s one thing that reading taught me, it’s that anything can be fascinating when written about well enough. Two of my favorite books, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, are about baseball and graphic novels, and I’ve never even had a remote interest in either of them. But the passion and dedication of the authors came through their prose – drawn from investments in both childhood knowledge and encyclopedic research, cemented in fictional stories about the very real experience of existence.
So while I didn’t identify with the short-stop’s athletic rigor, or the economic hardships of a comic book artist living in New York in the 70s, I identified with their love for something so particular. As Chad Harbach wrote, it’s our love for “an apparently pointless affair, undertaken … to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.” Although the process may be painstaking and difficult, reading and writing fill me with sense of recognition, validation, and clarity like no other. And it’s this communal sense of creation, of discovery, of unearthing new ways to manipulate a common language, that strikes me the most deeply as reasons to bother.