Why Read? 

By Santiago Alba Rico.

A Reading Manifesto. Second Annual Day of Reflection on Reading. Cuenca, Spain, April 22, 2008.


The need to repeat and renew the call to read – a call to promote, simulate and highlight reading and literature – arises from a twofold anguish: first of all, because readers feel that books are becoming an endangered species, and secondly, because we never seem to find enough convincing arguments in favor of our addiction.

True, people have always complained about the weather, but only now can we talk about climate change.  True, Cicero was already lamenting young Romans’ lack of passion for reading, but only now can we talk about a change of paradigm. An instrument of domination and of liberation, writing itself is endangered as a point where human destiny is built and decided. This becomes evident from some simple data: While book titles in print and book sales are both increasing, the number of effective readers is decreasing around the world. While there is still plenty of true illiteracy in the poor countries of the world, functional illiteracy is on the rise in the rich countries. While humanity’s technical data-gathering and storage capacity continues to multiply, individual human memories continue to weaken and fail. How few of us are still capable of remembering a poem or a song, or of quoting anything from memory. How few of us are able to fully remember even the most recent events, even when our feet are held to the fire. For new generations, the fall of the Berlin Wall is as ancient, as boring and as utterly irrelevant as the fall of Rome.  Even the invasion of Iraq now seems as remote and meaningless as the Spanish conquest or the Crusades. History has disappeared amid the instant and repeated consumption of hyper-intense, hyper-disposable images which come and go without a trace, leaving behind only a hunger for new images, for continued and uninterrupted visual stimulation. It is as though human vision has been transformed into an extension of the digestive system.

Under conditions like these one does not even need to burn books. They self-destruct at the moment they come off the press. Books (poor things!) cannot defend themselves. In the poorer half of the world they are unaffordable, while in the richer half one can barely distinguish them from junk food or kitchen gadgets. If we want to save the books—along with the elephants, the glaciers and the children—we have to question the whole framework in which they exist. If we want to save Joyce or García Lorca—even if we’re only interested in saving Joyce or García Lorca—we have to save the elephants.  If we want to save the Illiad and Don Quixote—even if we only want to save these great books—we have to save the glaciers and the children, too.

But why bother to save the books?  Why read at all?  It is true that reading teaches us many things, but it can also teach us wrong or damaging things. Reading frees us, but it can also bind us to our prejudices and stupidities. Reading is fun, but sex, or roller-coasters, or television are more fun than reading. Reading informs us, but it also manipulates us. Reading makes us think, but who wants to think too hard? Reading can change the world, but it seems that all we are interested in any more is holding on to what we have left. Reading helps us to save the world, but I am afraid that the only way we will be able to save it is if everybody actually pitches in and lends a hand. So why read?

Critic and author George Steiner suggests that the strength of literature rests precisely in its ambiguity between good and bad.  I would prefer to say that its strength is located in the fact that this indeterminacy is absolutely determined!  That is to say, within this indeterminacy one may come upon a Red Riding Hood or a Bluebeard; it appears “small, bald, smooth, as soft outside as though it were made of cotton”; or “green as green could be,” or fifty years old and “with harsh complexion, dried up, bony-faced, sleepless and homely,” or is born of a material place called Macondo.

Life, said Kafka, is a riddle for which we have forgotten the key. Books, on the other hand, are keys whose riddles we have not yet found. Great novels, great stories, good poems, all answer questions that we have not yet asked, that we have not yet encountered. Life is an exam; we take it day by day without ever knowing for sure if we have the right answers. In this situation, good books always give precisely the right responses to problems that we have yet to recognize and solve. We know that the right answer is there, but we don’t know to which problem it belongs. In any case, we know that we are dealing with broad and radical problems, the solutions to which are a certain broom-flower clinging to the side of Mount Etna, a certain young girl who wanted to play the violin and who ends up working as a cashier in a department-store, a certain peg-leg pirate with a certain parrot perched on his shoulder, or a certain May morning when a certain aged holy-man arrives at a certain city called Lahore. Every time we read Leopardi or Carson McCullers or Stevenson or Kipling we are overcome by a marvelous certainty that we have arrived somewhere, even though we may not know where, and that we have solved some riddle, even though we may not know which one.

The enigma of having a concrete solution—a certain flower, a certain child, a certain pirate, a certain holy-man—is that we do not know which riddle it solves. For this reason, the marvelous satisfaction, the calming certainty that a good book offers is immediately followed by a no less intense feeling of dissatisfaction. This is because an answer without a riddle is another riddle whose solution has to be sought in another book.  This is why reading is so dangerous: to begin it is chancy, unpredictable and incoercible, and to stop is impossible.

There is a legend about an oriental wise-man who once tried to boil down all human wisdom to a single page, and then to a single sentence, and finally to a word, and who ended up immersing himself in silence and imposing silence on everyone else. There are authors who dream of writing the ultimate book, the definitive book, the book to end all books.  And then there are the religions called “of the book” that believe that the Bible or the Qur’an renders all other books superfluous or redundant. By imposing the reading of only one book they end up actually impeding the idea of reading. This monotheism as monobiblism is the silence of the world before the “big bang” of creation.

Reading has no end, because it is composed of many beginnings, and we can only begin a few of them before the end of our lives. It is not a process like reproduction or accumulation of wealth, but more properly a series of stops and starts, like the route of a bus or a train. Only very young children, the military and capitalists live by numbers. Finite things, actual flesh and blood humans, are not numbers. For this reason, we don’t just count people, people themselves count. We don’t just treat them as accounts, we account for them. This is why we can say that literature is the opposite of technology.  We can say that the computer has replaced the typewriter, but we can never say that Coetzee has replaced Balzac or that Roberto Bolaño has replaced Dickens. In each one of these authors we can find the excitement of a new beginning, in the “Once upon a time” of their storytelling, the cardinal pleasure, the local and localizing suspense of discovering that there really is something rather than nothing (or rather, something other than just me, I and myself).  There is the unconscious excitement of discovering that things are happening over which we have no say, things that can change actual lives in real places—perhaps even change our own lives in our own time and place.

But who would want to dedicate their lives, or even a minute of their lives, to piling up solutions for which they need to find the puzzles, or to accumulating answers that still lack questions?  The answer is: any human being who has problems, which is to say, any human worth the name.

And who would want to devote their attention, or even one minute of their attention, to an area where there are always innovations and discoveries, but never progress?  The answer is, any human who has a past, which is to say, any human worthy of the name.

So why read?  Marcel Proust wrote that, in the same way that we cannot directly perceive the earth’s rotation, we cannot directly perceive the passage of time, and this is what novels are for (his more than any others). They are like paradoxical clocks that, when time speeds up, lend a sense of time to situations where we generally do not feel its movement.

One may claim that we no longer have time for reading. This is like saying that we have no time for time, that we have no time to let time pass. On the other hand, we have plenty of time to ignore time passing for hours and hours, to spend days pretending time is standing still, to fritter away an entire lifetime. We have time to go to Australia, but not to go to the kitchen or to the house across the street.  We have time to photograph the Pyramids for the millionth time, but not to build sand castles on the beach.  We have plenty of time to travel around the world on a computer screen, but not enough time to peel a potato. Sure, we have the minute it takes to destroy the whole world, but not the seven days it took to create one.  In a few words, we have time for digestion and for television, but not for taking our own time.

Books don’t take time, they make time.  They give us back our time, They give us back the geological time that the mountains needed to form, that children need to grow up.  They give us the attention-span that is needed to look at something and actually see it. They give us caring hands, a tongue to express their riches, bodies to know ourselves, plus the intelligence and imagination to get interested in real things or real people. In this time that stories give us back, which is real human time, really terrible things can happen. But without this time, the good things, the better things, the best things, those kinds of things that are essential for saving the elephants, the children and the glaciers, become impossible.

The problem today is not scorn for reality, but scorn for imagination, the degradation of that kind of storytelling that once taught us about time and through which, in recent centuries, we have come to judge the real consistency of the outside world.  One can read and then abandon one’s own children. One can read and then overrun another country by fire and blood. One can read and then participate in genocide. But how is the death of Aisha and Omar in Baghdad going to affect us at all if we are not affected by the death of Jo in Bleak House?  How are we going to feel the pain of the Palestinians if we cannot feel the pain of the Lilliputians? How will we become interested in the future of humanity if we are not interested in the fate of the unicorns or of the Hobbits? 

Just the same way that no argument by a reasoned atheist will ever logically persuade a religious fanatic, there is no argument for reading that will ever persuade a fanatical time-waster, lost in his intense images, and make him want to read Stendhal, Jack London or Proust. Perhaps in a world with less injustice there would be more reasonable people, and I think that in a slower-moving world, reading would still have a fighting chance. Justice and taking one’s time are values that must be defended untiringly, both in and out of season. Meanwhile, for mysterious reasons that seem to be related to the partial failure of logic in real cases, it is still possible, just like in the storybooks, to convert real people. It happens like an unexpected kiss: a moment of unguarded boredom, a heroic teacher, a sudden setback that sets one in motion. There are still some magic frogs who can be transformed by a kiss and awakened to critical consciousness and a love of literature. This is why, although it may be from the catacombs, we have to keep speaking out for justice and freedom. This is why, although it may be from the catacombs, we have to keep speaking out loud the titles of our favorite works. If we ever hope to save the elephants, the glaciers and the children—if such a thing is still possible—these words and these books will be essential.

 From http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=66459, translated by Owen Williamson. Both original and translation are under Creative Commons license. Further reproduction, distribution and publication of this text is freely authorized, provided sources are acknowledged.

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