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Jaime Nubiola, Professor of Philosophy, University of Navarra

More books, more freedom

Sat, 31 Jul 2010 10:03:47 +0000 Published in Aragón liberal

The celebration of the fourth centenary of the publication of the first part of Don Quixote has brought us a wonderful outpouring of editions, commemorations, cultural events and programs from all over the world subject.

Of all these events, I would like to highlight a very simple one, but full of meaning, that I discovered in Barcelona a few weeks ago while walking down the street enjoying the Mediterranean spring. During the walk along the Diagonal, my attention was attracted by the slogan chosen by the city to celebrate this 2005, "Year of Books and Reading": Més llibres, més lliures (More books, more freedom).

Dozens of lampposts were adorned with the posters of the celebration and all of them contained these words that seem at first glance to be a clever advertising slogan, but which, if you think about it a little, you soon realize that they go straight to the heart of our democratic vitality. It is not just a happy play on words, but through the permutation of a single letter, both in Catalan and in Spanish, this slogan opens up an unsuspected horizon of meaning for the life of each individual and for society as such: "More books, more freedom".

If we read more books we will become freer: reading broadens our lives, because it broadens our lives with the intelligence and sensitivity of others. If we have more libraries in our cities and more books in our homes, our society can become more cultured, more democratic and freer. Seeing that sign repeated on the lampposts brought to my mind report both the information, distributed a few days before, that Spaniards watch about four hours of television a day, and the totalitarian nightmares of the burning of books by the firemen in Fahrenheit 451. "More TV, less free; more books, more free" -I repeated to myself- and not only because the consumption of television dulls the mind -it dulls it- but also because of the time available. Those who watch four hours of television a day will hardly have time to read anything more than the headlines of the newspaper.

Three months ago I lent The Fencing Master to a university student, stuck in the first year of degree program, whom I was trying to introduce to reading. This week he came to return the book very kindly, telling me quite frankly that he had not been able to read it because he did not have time. I thought that the student did not have enough inner openness to start reading. That is the real problem, there are many people who do not have time for reading: they have so much noise inside and so many images in their eyes that they do not have enough peace to start listening to others through books.

I write these lines on the Library Services of my University accompanied by a million books that challenge me from the shelves with their most diverse voices. I am convinced that reading is absolutely indispensable for a fully human life: "We read to live", said the writer Belén Gopegui. Perhaps it is true that those of us who live with books are a peculiar variety of the human race, but it is our duty to try to discover this treasure to others, to students and to all members of our society. Literature is not only the best way to educate the imagination, but it is an indispensable means to learn to live with other people, with other sensibilities, with other cultures. A society without reading cannot be a democratic society: a society without books cannot be a truly free society.

Reading is not, as one might think, a private behavior, but a social transaction if -and this is a capital "if"- the literature is good," wrote the American novelist Walker Percy. subject If the book is good," Percy continues, "even if it is being read only for oneself, what happens there is a very special communication between the reader and the writer: that communication reveals to us that the most intimate and ineffable part of ourselves is part of the universal human experience.

A peculiar harmony is needed between author and reader, because a book is always "a bridge," Amorós has written, "between the soul of a writer and the sensibility of a reader. That is why it makes no sense to torture ourselves by reading books that do not attract our attention, or to force ourselves to finish a book simply because we have started it. It is totally counterproductive. There are thousands of very good books that we will not have time to read in our whole life, no matter how long it may be.

That is why I always recommend to stop reading a book that has not captivated us by page 30. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "to know the vintage and quality of a wine it is not necessary to drink the whole barrel. In average hour you can decide whether or not a book is worthwhile. In fact, 10 minutes is enough, if you have the sensibility for the form. Who would be willing to soak up a boring book? A taste of it is enough.

Which books to read? Those that we feel like reading for whatever reason, distrusting of course the bestseller lists: these lists include the bestselling new books, but exclude the classics, the "lifetime" books, which are really the most read and, in many cases, the real bestsellers. A good reason to read a particular book is that it has been liked by someone we appreciate and has recommended it to us. Another good reason is to have previously read with pleasure some other book by the same author and to have perceived the same feeling.

In what order to read? No order is necessary. It is enough to have the books stacked in a pile or in a list to read them one after the other, so that we do not read more than two or three books at a time. It really depends on the time that each one has, but we must go everywhere with the book we are reading in order to take advantage of the waiting and dead times. On airplanes -more so in other countries than in our own- I am struck by the people who always read and thus manage to enjoy the painful delays at airports.

Every time we close a finished book - Zanotti has written - we have won a battle against incomprehension". In François Truffaut's unforgettable version of Fahrenheit 451 - the temperature at which the paper of books ignites and burns - there is a scene in which the book-men are reciting among the trees of the forest the book that each one has learned to transmit it to others and thus be able to create spaces of intellectual freedom in the face of the oppressive oppression of wall television and non-thinking. Sometimes I come to think that today's status bears a certain resemblance to that totalitarian nightmare and, for this reason, I remind myself that those of us who enjoy reading should tell others. Gracián wrote that "we are born to know, and books faithfully make us people". In short, as the lampposts in Barcelona reminded us in Catalan, "more books, more free".