“Why You Read in the First Place:” A Review of Anne Bogel’s I’d Rather be Reading

Many of us have a love for reading. Whether or not we are fans of lengthy fiction novels, or short magazine articles in the likes of People, reading comes naturally to us, as either a hobby or something more—something we can build our life around. This is the way of the “reading life,” which author and blogger Anne Bogel knows well. She describes the “delights and dilemmas” of such a life in her essay collection I’d Rather be Reading (2018). As the creator of the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcast What Should I Read Next?, Bogel is an avid reader, with much to say about what to read and how to relish it. Her anecdotes and advice in I’d Rather be Reading are relatable to just about anyone who has ever listed reading as one of their favorite past times.

As someone who actively makes book lists for her followers, Bogel begins with one of the questions she is asked most often: “Can you recommend me a good book?” (11). It is both a simple and an incredibly difficult question. Good is subjective; what is a good book to one person may not be to another. When looking for a good book, we often want one that makes us feel, a book that enraptures us, if just for a few hours. Recommending such a book, however, is not easy. As Bogel says, “To hand you a great book, I don’t just need to know about books; I need to know you” (13). This theme runs through many of her anecdotes; “reading is personal” (14), and the books we read shape who we are. Living vicariously through the characters within them helps broaden our emotional horizons and prepares us for the future. We laugh and cry with these characters. The meaning and value they hold in our lives is irreplaceable. These books even change with us: “A good book when we return to it, will always have something new to say. It’s not the same book, and we’re not the same reader” (123). It is difficult, then, when we are asked to recommend a good book; we give these books meaning, and it is one of the best parts of reading.

The reading life, however, differs depending on the person, something Bogel validates through her assertion that there is no one right way to read.         It is often, she says, that people come to her to “confess their literary sins,” focusing on the differences between what they think their reading life should be, and what it is like (18). However, she makes a case against the word should: “Should is tangled up with guilt, frustration, and regret; we use it all the time, many of us to speak of the ways we wish we could be more, do more, or just be different” (62). She describes the word should as “bossy” (63) and “dangerous” (62). Should, in this case, attempts to get every reader to adhere to one way of reading, a singular way that does not exist. In literary spheres, it is commonly thought that, if one has not read what academia would identify as “the classics,” then one should be ashamed. I’d Rather be Reading, on the other hand, focuses on the subjectivity of the reading life. Bogel discusses the validity of those readers who barely read, those who only read the likes of Young Adult fiction, and those who do indeed love the “classics.” In reality, any book could be a “classic,” depending on who is discussing it.

Although reading can be quite personal, there is a social side to it as well. Bogel describes this dichotomy as such: “Reading is often viewed as a solitary act; that’s one of the reasons I love it, and it’s certainly my favorite escape and introvert coping strategy of choice. But reading is also a social act: readers love to connect over good books” (138). In fact, readers tend to create their own social spheres through the like of book clubs, where it is possible to befriend others with similar taste when it comes to reading. Such friends can eventually become “book twins” (111)—those who tend to enjoy the same books as you. These “twins” are good sources for book recommendations and discussion, and this sort of serendipity exists as a main facet of the social side of reading. Although reading may be personal and sharing your favorite books may be daunting, it is this same intimacy that helps create the social realm for readers. As Bogel says, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained—and I’ve found talking about books to be a reliable shortcut to getting to the good stuff with our fellow readers, to cutting to the heart of what matters” (138-39). Sharing the personal when it comes to books can increase your fellow reader friends, fand help you forge bonds through the power of books.

Although I’d Rather be Reading is an amalgamation of stories surrounding Bogel’s experiences as a reader, I’m sure that the stories found within it will connect with many people’s experiences. This book reminded me of how reading helped me make my closest friends back in middle school when all we wanted to do was talk about our favorite reads. It reminded me that it is not a problem that I have not read all the classics, or that I had a Twilight phase as a child—these are just the readers I have been, and there is no shame when it comes to the reading lives I have lived. Reading has let me live “thousands” of lives (51), and I’d Rather be Reading let me relive some of these experiences. As “a book that reminds you why you read in the first place,” (12), I’d Rather be Reading moved me out of my reading slump and made me want to pick up the next book on my to-read list, an experience I’d Rather be Reading looks to give to readers of all kinds.

Fayth Schutter is double majoring in Professional Writing and Mass Communication at Purdue University.