I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
Coming off a two-year reading slump, it shouldn't be surprising that this is a question I ponder on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
If you asked me this question as a seven year old, I would have answered "to feel less alone." The world is scary when you grow up, because you're not sure who to relate to and your environment is limited. There's that whole saying about feeling lonely in a crowd of people but never with a book, which is precisely what I felt. Being a socially awkward dork instilled a sort of fear that I could never experiment with myself among others, but I could always be free with books.
Speeding maybe three years forward, I would have said that we read because words are powerful. I think most readers know this from the second they start to read, but it's mostly a subconscious thing, and it's only after cumulative years of retrospect that you start to recognize literature's ability to move you, to motivate you, to inspire you. Being a reader--a sincere reader, anyway--requires that belief, the conviction that the stories told in books are important and influential, the benefit of doubt that allows an author to surprise you. It may be true that 90% of all art is crap, but it's also true that if you stick with it long enough, there's more than enough gems to sustain the well-intentioned sincerity needed to keep reading.
Fast-forward several more years, and I start to develop some more abstract philosophical reasons to read. We read to empathize with other people and think outside our cultural boxes. Reading is important because for many people, it is their main gateway to the rest of the world. We read because we don't want to remain ignorant, because maintaining a connection and awareness with the world is vital. Going a little deeper, we also believe that it's important to maintain a connection with the past. That's part of the reason why works like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Four Classical Novels of China, Beowulf, Shahnemeh, and every other cultural epic are valued as much as they are in the literary canon, because they represent the spirit of an age of people that can never be revived.
We also read to see ourselves and our behaviors reflected in the stories we consume, so we gain a sense of identity and confirmation--an extremely important thing to hang onto as you grow up and move out of the protected environment of childhood. That's part of the reason behind the need to represent people of color, women, lesbians, etc. etc., because we believe that everyone deserves to be valued at the same level and in the same way by our culture. Thus, literature is also important in the political sense, because if it has the power to affect an individual, it also has the power to disseminate ideas through entire cultures and change popular opinions, for better or for worse.
So. Here I am, a 16-year-old high school junior, wasting time on the Internet when I should be reading and annotating Moby-Dick. I've been stuck in a little of an emotional rut for the past two years, and the thought that I might have changed--that I'm not really a reader after all, that books will never play the same role in my life they once did--constantly haunts me. I now have another reason to read: I read to assuage my doubts. I read because I have to, and I read because if I stop, I just don't know what to do with myself. More often than not I feel like I'm falling behind, though falling behind in what, I'm not really sure.
Finding online reading communities like GR and BL was a godsend. It's absolutely thrilling to be affirmed that this mad quest for trying to understand ourselves by staring at black squiggly lines on pieces of paper for hours on end is perfectly ok, and often worthwhile. At the same time though, I find it overwhelming. People read so damn fast. Growing up, part of me thought that no book is ever truly done with--you can keep thinking and talking about it for years and not cover everything important about it. Yet I know quite a few who can breeze through hundreds of books in a single year, which makes me doubt the whole process of really thinking and analyzing and reflecting on literature that I originally joined GR for. I don't mean to advocate my personal approach to reading and force everyone to adopt it, I just feel like I *should* be able to immediately understand every reader I meet, figure out the rationale behind every review, of my own accord. If I disagree with someone, we should be able to talk about it to the point where we can find common ground. If I find a review that completely clashes with my own experience, I should manage to think out the tension between the two conflicting opinions and figure out what precisely caused the disconnect.
I guess looking around however, this is a struggle that the reading community grapples with constantly. Hence the flame wars, where people are unable to respect each other's opinions and occasionally descend into name-calling when no language for proper discussion can be worked out. While I definitely don't approve of these kinds of interactions, I can understand the reasons behind it. The Internet is just so huge. It's hard to deal with a constant influx of conflicting ideas and try to keep a level head at the same time. I think that's the same reason why people struggle to accept racial diversity--because this sense of the "other" just doesn't jive with whatever sense of grounded identity we've worked out for ourselves, and it takes a willingness to constantly question oneself in order to understand rather than simply alienate.
Back to the topic of books though, this does present a problem for me in working out a consistent reading process. It used to be so easy to just dive into a book because I had nothing else to do and nothing much serious to deal with on the sidelines. Now when I read a book, I'm not only processing the words in front of me, I'm also running all the positive, negative, and in-between reviews I've encountered through my head and trying to disentangle whatever preconceptions I've managed to pick up. Sometimes I end up liking a book because I can't really see it any other way, despite some gnawing reservations I have no idea how to put into words. Or I dislike a book because all the criticism hurled at it has gotten to my head and I don't know how to fully think for myself without completely disconnecting from the reading community altogether. I guess you could call it a social aspect, although it's not really social so much as...I guess ideologically influential. Fully engaging with ideas requires you to come at it with as open a mind as possible and a willingness to let whatever you encounter change you. That's what makes online discussions, at least in my experience, so amazing and mind-blowing--some other person behind a computer screen can literally press all the right buttons to alter the way you view the world.
Perhaps what I'm saying is that despite not knowing how to deal with these things, I feel that they're necessary. Talking with other people about your reading experiences is necessary, whether in real-life interactions, reviews, or comments. Reading is necessary, being arguably the most powerful form of communication for centuries of history. It's just a part of who we are, to engage with each other and with ourselves, because the life unexamined is not worth living. So I guess it doesn't matter what I feel about why we read, because I have to do it anyway whether I really want to or not, and I'll figure something out whether I want to or not. And maybe that's all there really is to it.