Why Is Reading Painful?

Question on Quora:

Why does reading feel so painful?

If you are suffering from reading disability, you should seek medical help as soon as possible. Do not take it lightly. Assuming reading disability is not the problem, reading should be painful only when you are forced onto it. In such case, there are two remedies I think might help.

The first remedy is to find your curiosity. I have never met you but I am 100% confident that you don’t find all readings painful (again, assuming you are not suffering from any form of reading disability). For example, do you find reading Facebook or Instagram painful? What about reading a novel or comic that you love? Reading can be fun when you are curious. Facebook can be fun because you are curious about what your friends (or perhaps even strangers) have to say about life. Reading a novel or comic that you love can also be fun because you want to know what happens next. Can you imagine reading with zero curiosity? Or rather, can you imagine a life with zero curiosity?

So look for your curiosity, especially when you have to read something you don’t want to read. One way of doing it is by asking why. If you are reading Hamlet for school (ouch!), try to get into Prince Hamlet’s mind and understand why he is the way he is. Perhaps you will even start seeing some similarity between Hamlet and Game of Thrones. If you have to read a textbook on Physics, try to understand why Isaac Newton, as a devout Christian, chose to interpret the universe differently from what the Bible had taught him. Perhaps you will even start seeing Physics as a whole new way to explore perspectives in life. Every single book, article, sentence, or even word is written for a reason, hopefully worthy of your curiosity.

In case my writing is too dry (or too poor) for you to read, here is a video on how one of the smartest scientists of our time, Dr. Michio Kaku, finds our current education system in the US an insult to Science because of the lack of curiosity. That’s right, an inuslt!

The other remedy that might help is a bit more philosophical but I believe is fundamental to what makes us humans. Let me start by asking: Which of the followings would give you a more profound pleasure in life as a human being?

  • Effortlessly winning a race between you and your 5-year-old little brother in the backyard of your house, or
  • You are not naturally athletic, but with years and years of sweat and tears, you finally win an important race that you have been dreaming to win literally since you were born

The point is: Yes, like all challenges in life, reading does take (painful) efforts, but “efforts” enable us to experience a much more profound pleasure because of the use of our higher faculties as human beings. In plain language, we gain pleasure by becoming a better ourselves through efforts.

Here is another question perhaps more to the context of your question: Would you prefer watching Simpsons or reading Shakespeare tonight? Perhaps except for English professors, most people would choose Simpsons over Shakespeare. Now, which of the two would you prefer if your choice will be the one and only one entertainment you can have for the rest of your life? Some people would now start considering Shakespeare. Here’s where things become interesting. When asked which of the two forms of entertainment would give you, as a human being, the qualitatively higher pleasure in life, most people would pick Shakespeare.

Simpsons over Shakespeare tonight, but Shakespeare over Simpsons for life… Why? To quote the great philosopher, John Stuart Mill:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

Here Mill believes that the highest pleasure we can experience in life is the one that engages our highest faculties as human beings. We might have to put in way more efforts before we can experience the aesthetics in Shakespeare’s plays than, say, enjoying an episode of Simpsons tonight. Yet it is exactly our efforts that will eventually give us a much more profound pleasure in life for that we make use of our higher facilities as human beings, our intellectual capacity to think and feel (in a much more proud way) in the case of reading Shakespeare.

So, pursue the higher pleasure in life. If you don’t have anything particular in mind, reading might be a good start.