I recently stumbled across an article written by Umberto Eco in Rome in 1991, translated into Spanish by Jorge Cruz and published in the Argentinean newspaper La Nación, explaining why he believed that books prolong life. He quotes Valentino Bombini’s maxim: “A man who reads is as good as two men.” More than a slogan that an editor might use to promote an author’s books, he says, this statement confirms that reading prolongs life. Why? Because, goes his thesis, from the early times in which the human species started to emit its first meaningful sounds, families and tribes required elders. Before language those elders may very well have been deemed useless, as they could no longer hunt, but after the birth of language, elders became the living memory of our species. Surrounded by others, they sat in front of the fire, and spoke about what had taken place, or what was said to have taken place (as such is the function of myths) before the young ones were born. Before this social memory was cultivated, Eco says, human beings were born without experience, they had no time to forge it before they died. But after, it was if a twenty-year-old had been alive for five thousand years: the events that had transpired before their birth, and those that had been passed down by elders, became part of their memory.
Nowadays, Eco continues, books are our elders. We don’t realize it, but our wealth vis-à-vis someone who is illiterate (or someone who can read, but chooses not to) consists of the fact that, while they are exclusively living their own life, we, in contrast, have lived many. Readers don’t only remember the games we played during our childhood, but those played by our favourite authors or their characters. We suffer for our love but also for the love of all the couples that inhabit the pages that we have devoured. We could, naturally, remember lies, too, but reading helps us distinguish truth from falsehood. People who are illiterate, or who don’t read, miss out on these opportunities. Thus, reading is a life insurance. In fact, “reading is immortality backwards.” This sentence, with closes the article I’m quoting and translating from, has actually become one of Eco’s most famous sayings.
Reading is immortality backwards. Isn’t the idea fascinating? Writing is frequently associated with the search for immortality: a future in which one’s name and works will still be relevant. But if I understand Eco correctly, reading is the exact opposite: it is acquiring the knowledge and experience that were amassed before us, in the immediate and faraway past, and making them relevant in the present. I cannot think of a more beautiful way to describe the act of reading, and its significance.
Thirty one years have gone by since Eco wrote this article. I wonder what he would say of our world, and our reading habits, today. Our present is incredibly hectic. We have barely any spare time, but those of us who love reading, always manage to steal a moment from our busy schedule to take our mind for a stroll down the pages of the text that has caught our attention. We love to read. We need to read.
Why do you read? Do you read to live, as Eco said, a thousand more lives than our own? To escape our world? Or to be wiser? Whatever the answer, I do agree with Eco when he says that reading provides us with an undeniable wealth. And in contrast to the riches that others are willing to kill and die for, no one can ever rob us of this fortune. We, readers, have been onto something priceless all along. I only wish everyone were interested in finding this same treasure. It is the only bounty that grows bigger the more people take from it.
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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Martha Bátiz is an award-winning writer, translator, and professor of Spanish language in literature. She is the author of four books, including the story collection Plaza Requiem, winner of an International Latino Book Award, and the novella The Wolf’s Mouth, winner of the Casa de Teatro Prize. Her most recent publication is the story collection No Stars in the Sky (House of Anansi). Born and raised in Mexico City, she lives in Toronto.