“The work of the reader” by Piero Dorfles: reasons against and in favor of reading

Italians read more in the summer, even if mostly yellow. I see them around me, among the umbrellas or under a canopy, in front of an alpine landscape, concentrated and bent over an open book. It is a great sight, no doubt about it. But for this very reason I began to wonder if reading is a value in itself, if reading a book is always better than not reading it. Now, talking at a distance with a good book by Piero Dorfles – The reader’s work. Because reading changes your life (Bompiani), an act of love for reading – I try to list some reasons for and some reasons against reading. I share every single word of Dorfles’s essay. Yet every sentence also triggers an objection in me. So I recommend the essay for the quality of thought and style – among other things, it reviews some classics of literature, illustrious and minor, Dostoevsky And D’Arzo, Balzac And Flaiano, Cervantes And Greene – and I share the general inspiration, but I would like to play the devil’s advocate a bit. I add that you will also find a strongly idiosyncratic chapter – goodbye! – on the “Mielestrazio”, dull and rhetorical works, devoid of any irony (where he tears up the History of Morante and The Little Prince).

Reasons against reading

1. Zeta, protagonist of a libretto by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, he exclaims: “If instead of picking up books I had started thinking on my own, I would have been smarter.” And an aphorism from his compatriot Lichtenberg, at the end of the 18th century, seems to echo: “That fellow would be more intelligent if he hadn’t read all those books”. It is clear that this is a paradox, even if, I confess, he made me think of concrete people, whom I frequent: they know all the opinions, and they no longer know which ones are theirs. In the first very hard lockdown it was said that people finally had an immense amount of free time, which they could use to read. Well, I argued instead that they should have used all that free time to think more about themselves. For the Arendt evil technically arises from not thinking: the “monster” Eichmann, administrator of the extermination of the Jews, he was a zealous official who had given up thinking, that is, talking with himself.

2. Hitler, in addition to being an arsonist of books, read one a day, and his library in 1940 numbered over 16,000! He was honestly surpassed by Stalin, who had a library with 25,000 books, who wrote poetry and who even published an essay on linguistics! Nor is it relevant that Hitler read almost nothing but feuilleton, pulp novels, and esoteric junk. Instead, I would like to insist on the method of reading Hitler, focused in Mein Kampf: first decide what you want to know, then look for all those books that confirm your beliefs. Even inside the bunker the story of Frederick the Great it served to show him that somehow the Germany he would have won! A reader yes “obsessive”, but not selective and above all not reflective. It is legitimate to buy a book just to inquire about something or for entertainment. But culture does not coincide tout court with information, nor should it be used only as self-confirmation. It is the ability to choose and evaluate. Otherwise, reading does not even become, properly speaking, an experience. Okay, Hitler is a borderline case, but perhaps a “reflective reader” or analytical (in our minority), who reads even a few books a year, would be the most contagious example for the mass of non-readers.

3. Dorfles’s essay opens like this: “Reading, deciphering those abstruse black signs on paper, is a job, a profession, a skill that can only be acquired through practice, and which can be lost if it is not cultivated. It is a habit, a sort of intellectual muscle which, if exercised, works with more vigor, and gives more strength in dealing with the written page ”. I would add that learning this trade is quite a hard time in our socialization. Dorfles he writes that it is the most abstract thing that man can do … sure, for me it represents one of the greatest pleasures of existence but it is not a natural pleasure, like eating a delicious dish or making love. At school when we had to learn that skill we all worked hard and suffered. When I start reading a new book I have to do a little violence. So I have it with the mystery books that Dorfles instead defends with a sword: often of cumbersome reading (I have to keep mirrors at the end with all the characters), with very complicated plots whose final dissolution is trivial. So much effort for nothing!

4. Dorfles says: “Since in everyday life those who do not read books get along very well, one would think that the inability to read has little to do with the ability to be good citizens, competent workers and good fathers and mothers of families ….” I would say: Not only good citizens but advanced, wise people, full of spirituality. Of course, in the books there is the history of man, of his ideas and of his myths. But today we can learn this story just by leafing through them, listening to others and judiciously using the Net … A dear friend of mine has read 5 or 6 books in full in his entire life (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, something science fiction). I think he doesn’t need to read! She is in fact a very meditative person, with a rich interior life, as they say, always in search of a (non-religious) spirituality beyond the mere contingency of everyday life and open to the mystery of the cosmos.

5. Dorfles protest against theencyclopedism. “Flaubert he takes it out on those looking for easy shortcuts to knowledge; with those who claim to dominate the complexity of modern life with a single dusting of technical information; with those who think that having skills, slowly and painstakingly acquired through study, is superfluous … “ Right. But at times you can also be able to hear. Dante, great scholar, he was ignorant of the Greek, had he read the Nicomachean Ethics, of his philosopher of reference (Aristotle), only in a compendium … upright scholar and (a little cialtronic) eager?

6. While reciting the verses of Dante in Auschwitz suddenly Primo Levi has an illumination: “As if I too were hearing it for the first time: like a trumpet blast, like the voice of God. forgotten who I am and where I am. “ Something allows him to recover the essence of man in the face of the depersonalization of the Lager. But a copy of the Commedia was donated by Mussolini to Hitler, as soon as he got off the train in Ostiense. Does the Comedy belong to Primo Levi or to Mussolini? Undecidable question. The game is on. Each generation will have to play it – the “reader’s work” is inexhaustible and implies a choice of field, a stance, a commitment of the whole existence – without ever having the certainty of the outcome.

Reasons in favor of reading

Only one, even if powerful. If there is a reflective, aware, demanding reader, willing to be changed even disturbed by reading, omnivorous but able to discern the wheat from the chaff, curious about everything but without losing the sense of proportion, then reading is probably the most effective of knowledge, of oneself and of the world.

“The work of the reader” by Piero Dorfles: reasons against and in favor of reading – Il Riformista