I've grown up reading fantasy (which I will use interchangeably with science fiction) and what began as a form of escapism has more than developed into a love and appreciation for the genre. Picking up anything else has become a hassle most of the time with only the rare exception.
I love lists and I am probably only upstaged in that regard by Harry Markov, who has more than an obsession. :) In light of this, I will present why I love reading fantasy in list form:
1. Magic. I grew up wishing I could be a combination of Wolverine, Spider-man, and the Silver Surfer. I realize the last one kind of nullifies the rest, but I wanted it anyway. In Economics, we talk about magic being one of the reasons why people have developed technology - finding a quicker, easier way to get rid of our every-day tasks. In fantasy, I want more than this, I want to read about magic that dispatches the orcs, the goblins, and the pompous prick who gets his just deserts.
2. The characters. Fantasy characters come alive. They can be not only hilarious, but the toughest of the tough, the baddest of the bad, the...you get what I mean. They're not afraid to stand up for themselves, their family, or their friends. They represent the 12 year old in all of us who wants to conquer the world and who suffers from none of the anxieties and fears that many of us have come to know. They represent who we want to be in more ways than just a cool swordsman (or swordswoman).
Moreover, I love the character who just sucks it up, who never complains, who's worked hard to develop his or her talents and don't take nuthin' from no one. I honestly think this has added a lot to my personality because I actually try to be like these people - to work hard and become good at something, however mundane, is a real pleasure for me.
3. Imagination. What's the difference between an author writing fantasy or science fiction and an author writing mainstream fiction? Imagination. A fantasy author creates his or her own world or at least adapts to one not like our own while adhering to rules and history that make it just as real.
4. Travel. See new lands without the cost or the jet lag.
5. Simplicity. Stephen Deas, author of The Adamantine Palace, wrote an article about Fantasy asking "What is it good for?" (You can find it here) He explains that the reason we read fantasy is because it's simple. It may involve a complex world, but many times Fantasy lays it out plain, these are the good guys, these are the bad. In a complex world, sometimes we need something that is just simple.
Going a bit further, I enjoy fantasy because characters have the chance to make the big decisions; to be selfish or sacrifice for a cause. Many times this enters a grey area. Do the ends justify the means? What's more important loyalty and courage or beating out all other opponents?
I haven't been given too many chances to make such monumental decisions, but on a day to day basis, I make decisions that show my character. Reading fantasy helps me to envision who I want to be.
6. Hope. As we discover time and time again, the scullery boy or girl can become king or queen or the most powerful Wizard-King-DragonSlayer-MonsterTamer (went overboard again, sorry). What could we achieve if we just took a risk, started an adventure?
I'm sure I could keep going since it happens to be a favorite subject of mine. :) R. Scott Bakker provides some more enlightened and interesting commentary on this subject at sffworld.com called "Why Fantasy and Why Now?" I recommend checking it out.
What keeps you reading Fantasy and Science Fiction?