Why read?

By Caitlin Kelly

Isn’t this cover gorgeous? I LOVED this book, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

You’re doing it this very second. (Bless you!)

We’re all so time-starved,  between school and work and kids and aging parents and illness, (ours or others’) and income (getting, keeping, investing if lucky). Oh, and TV and movies and other places on the Internet.

Some days I picture libraries and bookstores as a piteous forest, arms reaching out entreatingly — read us!

In an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, (a phrase coined in the Dark Ages, back in 1998), our undivided attention is now a rarity.

carr service01
The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

Each weekend, I plow through the Saturday New York Times, Sunday New York Times and the weekend Financial Times; two of these include magazines also full of content and images.

As my husband asked recently, “How many words do you think that is?”

I read them in print, as much for the pleasure of its tactility as the satisfaction of tossing all the read sections on the floor.

Done! Progress!

I also read in print as an escape from the computer screen, to which I’m attached for so many hours every day — like you, I suspect!

My eyes get tired. I want a different medium.

In addition to these, I read the NYT and FT daily and, for work and pleasure, magazines ranging from Period Home (a British shelter mag) to Wired to Bloomberg Businessweek. (My husband subscribes to photo and golf magazines and Monocle and Foreign Affairs as well.)

I make a little time to consume digital stories, and some of them are terrific, (on Medium, Narratively and others.)

I follow 905 Twitter accounts, about 85 percent of which are news sources and, when read  en masse, can be deeply disorienting and confusing — I’ll see graphic news photos of the latest MidEast terrorist bombing followed immediately by a pastel Dorset living room from a design magazine.


And I still make time to read books, the most recent being “Answered Prayers”, a classic by the late Truman Capote, whose desperate indiscretion destroyed his glittering career. I found it odd, bitter, not enjoyable. I’m glad I’ve read it, but what a nasty little creature he was! (This, in case you forgot, is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later adapted to a legendary film.)

And another American classic, the 1937 “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I put it off for ages, then couldn’t put it down: great characters and plot, written in dialect.

I never leave home, (and have done this my whole life), without a book or magazine or newspaper, and often all of these at once.

These bookshelf photos are some shelfies — what’s on our bookshelves at home here in  New York…no, I haven’t (yet!) read all of them.






As author of two well-reviewed works of non-fiction — “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (2011) — I also have a vested personal interest in how much readers care about books!


malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011

Here’s an interesting new effort to actually figure out why people stop reading a book:

Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.

Jellybooks has run tests on nearly 200 books for seven publishers, one major American publisher, three British publishers and three German houses. Most of the publishers did not want to be identified, to avoid alarming their authors. The company typically gathers reading data from groups of 200 to 600 readers.

Mr. Rhomberg recently gave a workshop at Digital Book World, a publishing conference in New York, and some of his findings confirmed the worst fears of publishers and authors.

On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.

Some of the reasons I read:


What words and phrases did the writer choose? Do they work? What emotions are they eliciting in me?

Do I love their choices or am I finding them irritating and distracting? Why?

Do I wish I could write as beautifully? (Read “H is for Hawk” for some exquisite use of language.)



Forever deeply curious about the world — history, politics, economics, nature, science, belief systems, psychology, business, music, art, antiques. There’s so much I don’t know! So much I want to understand.

Writing that clearly and compellingly teaches me?  Yes, please!

New worlds

Maybe it’s ancient Egypt or Edwardian-era London or Paris in the 16th. century or a rural town populated primarily, in an era of segregation, by African-Americans. I need to visit other worlds, literally and imaginatively.

Great writing takes us there.


It’s such a joy to escape into a great piece of writing, so that when you stop reading you look up, disoriented and a bit dazed.

Where were you? Where are you now?



Love savoring characters so real you want to have lunch with them and miss them terribly when you’re done. I still miss the cast of “The Goldfinch”, a doorstop of a book given to me for my birthday two years ago. I wonder about the residents of the Paris apartment building in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”

I also wonder about the ongoing lives of so many of the people I read about in journalism and non-fiction, from soldiers to aid workers to choreographers


As someone who writes for a living, I need to read great work by other writers, whether a book review, an essay, an op-ed, a novel, even a great tweet. I want to see how other writers have chosen to structure a narrative, create suspense, choose and carry a theme, or several, to completion.

It can be non-fiction, journalism, an essay, from the 21st century or the 16th.

Artists in every genre look to the greats for inspiration. I do too.


Jose and I have a collection of reference books — of photography, painting, decorative arts, antiques and home design. These include works on Inuit women artists, Gustav Klimt, elephants, jewelry, vintage textiles and a gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of global interior design.

On a cold wintry afternoon, paging through these glorious images is a lovely break.

 Emotional Connection

Depending on  genre — self-help, memoir, essay, religion, philosophy — what a writer chooses to share about their life and their intimate struggles can help readers facing the same or similar challenges.


Are you an avid reader?




20 thoughts on “Why read?

  1. like you, i enjoy reading so much. i love the real newspapers, books, magazines – you name it. one of the most relaxing and enjoyable experiences i have each day.

  2. Oh, heck yeah I’m an avid reader. Books are just part of my life, which is one of many reasons I also write them. Just yesterday I finished two books, and I’m starting a book on Jack the Ripper (though I’ll probably take a break from that to read a friend’s mystery novel once that comes out). Even though I watch a ton of TV, I can’t imagine life without reading. It opens up doors for me, and I hope that my stories do the same for others.

  3. Fatima

    I read a lot and read a variety of books. On the go: Good-Bye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Bottom and Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon.

    I do read smut on occasion. Not 50 Shades! I mean better quality smut like Jory Strong, on occasion the spicy fiction of Diana Gabaldon. (God knows she has enough in the Outlander series to slowly work through.) Sometimes I need fiction as a respite from my Twitter feed.

      1. Fatima

        I haven’t arrived at Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum just yet. 🙂

        I bought the collection at McNally Jackson while in New York and started to read on the plane back to Winnipeg. When I read the blurb, I knew I needed to the book. I did some tourist-y things, but I used the subway and walked around the city. I miss it and the book made me feel less alone.

  4. Shell Ochsner

    I am an avid reader and writer. Books, magazines, e-zines, ads, social media, newspapers, recipes, lables, and even my kids school work. I love reading!

  5. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Wednesday links | A Bit More Detail

  6. I read and re-read fairly constantly. If I find I am getting bogged down in something with a slow plot, I will mark my place and set it down for a while. In this way I can sometimes have up to five novels on the go at once, and will take them along for my commute one at a time, depending on my mood. I find re-reading old favourites can be a great way to ground myself as I understand the emotional journey they take me on and if I am stressed out, or emotionally exhausted I will choose specific things to re-balance my mood. I also never go anywhere without a notepad and a couple of pens as sometimes my head wants filling and sometimes it wants emptying.

    1. Thanks for this…I love the idea of having 5 on the go at once. I’ll do that as well…am sloooowly working my way through a history of WWI (hardly bedside reading) and trying to read Jane Austen.

  7. I read a lot of non-fiction these days, mostly military history as well as magazines devoted to historical wargaming.
    Right now I’m reading Michael Shaara’s masterpiece the Killer Angels. It’s the story of the battle of Gettysburg made into a novel without messing with any of the facts. There’s a reason it won the Pulitzer prize.
    I like horror too. Especially The Exorcist and ‘Salem’s Lot, which I have read pretty much annually since high school (Class of ’78).

    1. My history of WWI (Keegan) is more detailed than I expected…battle by battle. Too much for me.

      Not a horror fan, although I’ve read a fair bit of King. After researching Blown Away, I heard too many stories of real life horror. “It” was terrifying. 🙂

      1. Stephen King has a saying: “Sometimes the monsters win.”. A great aphorism for fiction writing but, when having to digest this morsel of truth as it relates to real life, it can certainly leave one with something of a feeling of dissatisfaction.
        My wife is a librarian, so I think I’ll see if there is a copy of Blown Away in their catalog. If I like it or, if not, If I think people should read it, like it or not, I will buy a copy and pass it along to a friend. It’s the only way I can keep a little free shelf space.
        Also, could I have the Author and title of the history of WWI? That sounds like a good one.
        In return, might I recommend Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings by Amy Kelly. It’s scholarly without being dry and Queen Eleanor was an absolutely fascinating personage, far, far ahead of her time.
        I really enjoy reading and participating in your discussions. Thank you.

      2. Thanks… I worship librarians (guardians of books!) and pilots.

        Blown Away is now only special order; I need to update/revise and re-publish on amazon. On my to-do list…Malled is an easier read!

        http://www.amazon.com/First-World-War-John-Keegan/dp/0375700455/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8…This is the WWI book, which was a best-seller.

        Thanks for the rec…that book sounds terrific. I loved a doorstop-sized biography of Queen Elizabeth I. What a life she led!

        Glad you’re enjoying the blog. It’s lovely when readers respond and comment! 🙂

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