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01 December 2019

More books, more freedom

Knowledge means losing oneself in other people’s words: reading is a synonym of freedom.

As every year comes to a close, I set some time aside to see which books I have read in the last twelve months.

I consider a bit more in detail those which made an impact. This year, ‘The Other’ by Ryszard Kapuscinski, made the cut. The Polish novelist writes about the significance of travelling with a purpose and an open mind as well as with your eyes wide open. The road you travel on is important, because every step taken will bring you closer to the other. This is the author’s leitmotif: strangers, one of the richest sources of knowledge in the world; every meeting with ‘the other’ is a riddle, an unknown – even a secret (discover the secrets of your neighbour). You can only truly know yourself if you know others: people are our reflection. Xenophobia is a disease which, as Herodotus himself claimed, affects fearful people, with inferiority complexes and fearful of seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of the other culture.

I then reread ‘Anna Karenina’. The abuse this poor woman was subject to and, at the same time, her inability to really commit herself to the pursuit of happiness and understanding of her own feelings will prove deadly. A faux epiphany during my personal literary reflections: Tolstoy is a memorable writer. Wait for it, another unsurprising revelation: the surprising contemporary nature of the Ancient Greeks, the seminal thoughts of Socrates and Plato. Aristoteles has a special place in my heart. Read to really understand: this is what getting lost in other words can give us. Knowledge. Not pseudo-knowledge peppered with a lashing of superficiality and instrumentalization for good measure, as we see among soapbox speakers, leaders riddled with egotistic and power-hungry impulses, heads of government suggesting simple solutions to complex problems; not even those found among the ads of various influencers.

We live in a time where superficiality reigns supreme.

And so, true knowledge is the one under attack. Subjective opinions become the gospel put forth by people employing cheap rhetoric and skin-deep argumentations against whoever has dedicated their time to deepen their knowledge on specific themes. Speaking of, what about that typical English aplomb? Knowledge needs foundations, not empty words. Bookworms cannot, of course, rely on perfect knowledge, theories do not explain everything and forecasts can be incorrect. And yet, if we are interested in the emergency that our planet is experiencing, the environmental crisis, we will come to realise how forty years ago, scientists had already predicted our current travails and what will come in the future. Even in this case, only people who do not tackle the root of the issue, who do not explore scientific hypotheses, can be ‘bold’ enough to constantly question hard facts. We close the circle and come back to Aristoteles – how contemporary! – the first environmentalist in history: he believed in an ethic of nature, and environmentalism was a method more than anything else.

To sum it up, this is what I have learnt from my books: ‘the other’ is nothing other than a reflection of ourselves, returning and finding ourselves in Nature is no longer just an option, and happiness, for the most part, depends on us, on our behaviour.

I get the impression that many people are proud of not knowing things, and show off their ignorance. I am worried to read that half of the Italian entrepreneurs says they have not read even one book in one year. This lack of self-education is dangerous, especially when you are at the head of a company. Ricky Levi, president of the Italian editors, said that ‘a country cannot be rich and ignorant for more than one generation.’ On top of this, add an era of carelessness – oh how Socrates hated it – and widespread overall incompetence, and democracy itself is under threat.

Reading is tiring, more tiring than looking something up on Google or watching a TV series. However, reading helps you understand how not every opinion has the same value, learning something knew makes us feel good – as Aristoteles himself liked to repeat – and that knowledge, objectively speaking, is more important than Facebook likes or Instagram followers. If we want to maintain our Bel Paese, we need ‘Bella Gente’ (good people) who are not afraid to go beyond skin-deep issues and take everything at face value. Listening to some disparaging politicians and their gaggle of howling followers, it seems as though ‘everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.’ This is what Tolstoy believed, and how could we disagree?

Reading can change us, it can question our certainties, it can enrich us and suggest alternative paths.

This is why manipulators fear books, to the extent that, now and again, their leaders organise bonfires in the middle of a town square, throwing books into the flickering flames. Reading is a synonym of freedom. Let us take all the time we need to read: we will all be better because of it.

michil costa