Why do we read?
Is it knowledge, personal interest, connection? Or maybe entertainment or story? The purpose of a book is neither fixed nor singular since often, a single book can serve multiple purposes, and give as many rewards. Of all the rewards a book can bring, the one which encompasses ALL of the above is enjoyment. Books give us pleasure. Yet lately, I’ve noticed readers who not only search for but expect messages in books; they consistently expect stories to offer up a philosophical theory or a nugget of wisdom.
Now personally, I love books that do this, but it isn’t a requirement—and it certainly has never been the reason I pick up (or put down) a book. Still, from what I gather from many other readers, it seems every book MUST have a message, and the message MUST coincide and adhere to every possible rule and opinion under the sun (preferably all without causing offence).
Why does every book have to carry a hidden message?
And why is there such a prevalent trend to assume that those books with messages are often sending the wrong one?
Maybe we look for messages in books—more specifically, answers—to help us with certain aspects of our own lives, or maybe we need guidance, inspiration, or reinforcement of our morals. Whatever the reason behind this, I agree that stories can offer incredible insight and positive lessons that we can apply in our daily life.
Whittling a book down to its underlying message is not always straightforward, or even necessary. A book might have more than one message, and these messages or themes might be conflicting.
Sometimes, a story is outside of the norms of society, with or without an intended message. For instance, the story might follow a character who plays on the wrong side of the track. Of course, you could argue that the story is a lesson on how NOT to live your life or deal with a certain situation, but maybe… perhaps… it’s just a story. Pure entertainment value.
Some stories are told for the sheer pleasure of it. These are usually the books bearing the brunt. The books that are often labelled as trash, or fluff; accused of offering no significant contribution to the literary world, for lack of message and moral, or for the inclusion of a perceived lopsided one.
It is worth remembering the all-important reason for reading.
A novel doesn’t have to be the next War and Peace, or the next 1984, or Great Expectations.
As readers, we each have our own standards, preferences—and most importantly—unique view of the world, and this can influence how we interpret the stories we encounter. What one reader might view as a positive message, might be just the opposite for another.
Even if an author intends to present a specific message, moral, or theme to the reader, there is no guarantee the reader will receive it as intended. This is the beauty and magic of words—they have the power to transform themselves in ways which are personal to everyone who reads them. One might argue that a great writer would carry a message with such strength and clarity there would be no room for mistaking its meaning. Yet—depending on a reader’s point of view, their level of understanding, their life experience—this great writing is still susceptible to a unique interpretation.
“A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”
— Samuel Johnson
This phenomenal versatility of words and the power of storytelling is why the magic of books will never die. We as humans have spent centuries reading and analysing some of the most classic and precious of books, and yet, a new perspective, theme, or indeed, a message still can surface—even now.
On a smaller scale, think of your favourite book—the one you’ve read over, and over again. I’ll bet there are certain aspects which jumped out at you on your second or third reading, which might have been invisible to you the first time you read it. This is true for most readers.
Messages in books are not always concrete.
They aren’t set in stone. They change as we change, they alter as we seek new and different meaning. The only constant is the pleasure reading can bring, and sometimes, in the epic search for epic messages, this point gets lost along the way.