why do we do it?

According to the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, there are two reasons to read a book:

  1. amusement
  2. learning

According to the economist Ludwig von Mises, there are two kinds of writer:

  1. creative artists
  2. businessmen

Are these dichotomies telling me anything?

For one thing, all my trolling through online stores, forums, and Twitter tells me that the great majority of writers, in the e-book world at least, are businessmen trying to sell amusement. This is not to say that there is no creativity involved, or no learning. On the contrary, even the most “commercial” story requires creativity to produce, and, according to Aristotle, what makes any created work enjoyable—”amusing”, in Adler’s sense—is precisely that we learn from it. Even by seeing something familiar in a new way, with different eyes, we learn, and in so doing experience aesthetic pleasure.

So it seems to come down to a question of motivation. If all writing is both creative and instructive in some way, then the above dichotomies must point inward: why are we reading? why are we writing?

One of my favorite passages from von Mises’ Human Action is the following:

A painter is a businessman if he is intent upon making paintings which could be sold at the highest price. A painter who does not compromise with the taste of the buying public and, disdaining all unpleasant consequences, lets himself be guided solely by his own ideals is an artist, a creative genius.

The businessman is driven by the profit motive; the artist is driven by his ideals. Even Van Gogh sold a picture or two in his lifetime (or did he?), but he was no businessman.

On the reader’s side, I find the question a little more difficult. I believe that all (self-chosen) reading should be done for pleasure, which presumably means amusement. Or does it? Is pleasure to be found only in what is easy, familiar, and effortless? Or can one choose to read (or do) something that is demanding and a bit beyond one’s comfort zone, and find pleasure in doing so? Speaking for myself, this latter is definitely the case.

And here’s an observation from Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye:

There is no reason why a great poet should be a wise and good man, or even a tolerable human being, but there is every reason why his reader should be improved in his humanity as a result of reading him.

“Improved in his humanity.” This is starting to sound like the motivation of the “type 2” reader—the reader who reads to learn.

I’ve had the pleasure of reaching a large audience in my day. My TV series The Odyssey has been seen by millions of people all over the world. And even though it has not brought me much money by TV standards, I would have to call it a commercial success. Even then, though, my motivation was not primarily commercial. I see my career as being a long training in how to purge commercial considerations from my motivation in writing, and that training remains a work in progress.

It also means I feel relatively detached from the community of writers. I wish all my colleagues well, but I will continue to go my own way.

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