Inspiring Older Readers
An Answer For The Waffle Waitress
The peerless American stand-up comedian Bill Hicks used to perform a routine in which he reports an encounter with a waitress in a diner he found himself in. The sketch goes something like this:
“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I'm not proud of it, I was hungry. And I'm alone, I'm eating and I'm reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: 'Hey, whatcha readin' for?' Isn't that the weirdest fuckin' question you've ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm...I dunno...I guess I read for a lot of reasons and the main one is so I don't end up being a fuckin' waffle waitress.”
I was listening to it again the other day and it made me think about the question at the heart of this vignette - why do I read? In some ways it seems like a stupid question because we've surely rehearsed the reasons many times: there's Hicks' notion that we read to improve our minds so we can do more fulfilling and valuable jobs; we read for entertainment; for building empathy; for ordering and shaping our lives, understanding our past and our future.
I have personally always believed that reading is a survival skill - that reading comes to our aid when we are at our extremes of emotion, literally in life and death situations. Our reading becomes, as T.S.Eliot would have it, fragments shored against our ruin. I have no absolute proof for this but, for me at least, it's something I can relate to at an emotional and even experiential level. As I have grown older and I have increasingly had to come to terms with the tragedies and deaths of those close to me - and have to start contemplating my own mortality - I increasingly feel it is the books I have read and the collective wisdom they represent that is the most real and tangible thing I have to rely on.
But, does this really answer the question? Well, yes and no. In many ways all of these reasons for reading are true but somehow not the whole answer. What the Bill Hicks piece made me realise is that there is something even more important than any of these essentially instrumental reasons for reading. I think the truth is that I read because I can no longer imagine not reading. Reading has become me in a way that is no longer optional or negotiable - to deprive me of reading would be a calculated torture, a cruel and unusual punishment. Deprivation of my reading would, in my view, now constitute a breach of my fundamental human rights.
I am in the process of reading all the time. The end of one book is simply the opportunity to start another. The act of joint creation - co-production - with the author of the books I read is vital to the creation of my whole life narrative and how I explain myself and my existence. It could be argued that the boundary line between me and the books I read is essentially permeable and where I start and end and where the stories of my life start and end have become impossible to disentangle.
So maybe that simple question asked by a waitress in a diner in Nashville wasn't so dumb. It's a question that goes to the heart of human identity and purpose and one which is much harder to answer than just being able to list what I'm reading at any given moment. Without realising it the waffle waitress posed an existential question that we spend most of our life trying to answer – what is the purpose of anything we do? Reading has given me an answer of sorts but whether that answer means anything to anyone else will always be open to question.