Roland Barthes talked about ‘the pleasure of the text.’ The joy of reading lies in discovering, understanding and learning. To enter into other worlds and lives in the pages of books. Umberto Eco put it best: ‘At the age of 70, the man who doesn’t read will have led only one life – his own! The man who reads will have lived five thousand years. He will have been there when Cain killed Abel, when Renzo married Lucia and when Leopardi admired the infinite. Because reading is immortality backwards.’ Each of us could add something of our own to that list: the adventures of Odysseus, the seas of Stevenson and Salgari, swarming with pirates, Hugo Pratt’s free-spirited hero Corto Maltese, John le Carré’s sensitive spies, the nostalgia and ‘terrifying insularity of mind’ of the Leopard, the controversial fascination of the Mediterranean in Matvejević’s work, the pain of love for Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, the ironic joy of the great family in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the profound yet affectionate light-heartedness of the Little Prince, the Paul Street boys and the little women, Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory and the less wonderful factories of Primo Levi and Elio Vittorini, Gianni Rodari’s Telephone Tales (back in shops, we’re pleased to report, along with his other work, on the eve of the centenary of his birth), the deep uncertainty of Eugenio Montale’s lines ‘Today the only thing that we can tell you is what we are not / and what we do not want’, or the flash of beauty in ‘I illuminate myself with immensity’ by Giuseppe Ungaretti. Books are an endless story of discoveries, encounters, relationships and happiness.
The words of two great masters of the twentieth century, Barthes and Eco, come to mind at the fifth edition of ‘#ioleggoperché’, the initiative for promoting books and reading, a great project organised by the Italian Publishers Association (AIE), whose chairman is Ricardo Franco Levi. The event involves readers, schools, local authorities and businesses, and its aim is to give books to schools (more than 650,000 have been given in previous years, to 15,000 schools). Read for pleasure, for fun, for joy. Read to learn. Read so that we can be more civil and knowledgeable in building a responsible community.
‘La cultura come il pane’ (literally, ‘culture like bread’) is written right above the entrance to the Pirelli library at our headquarters in Bicocca, reflecting the history of close relationships between the Pirelli magazine and big names in Italian and European literature, art, photography, cinema, science and books. Just inside the large space, full of over 6,000 books, there is another essential quote: ‘The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead.’ It is taken from the pages of Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, one of the most important books of the twentieth century. So, libraries like granaries. And culture like bread.
This awareness of reading, nurturing, citizenship, happiness and freedom also inspired ‘Teaming up with books’, an initiative organised by the Pirelli Foundation with AIE for ‘#ioleggoperché’. Three hundred children from primary and middle schools in Milan gathered together to discuss words, competitiveness, passion and good sportsmanship, and the adventure stories and poetry of The Little Prince (the book most read among the children present), with sporting legends Xavier Zanetti, Regina Baresi and Mario Isola, head of Formula 1 for Pirelli, as well as Luigi Garlando, writer and sports journalist, Laura Galimberti, councillor for education on the municipal council of Milan, and Ricardo Franco, president of AIE. It was quite the party. Like all good parties, it ended with a present, from Pirelli to Verga middle school: a voucher for three hundred books for the school library. This was testimony to a wider project, to build strong relationships between public, school and independent libraries, to spread interest and pleasure in books and reading.
Moreover, it is in the name of social improvement. One of the things shown by the data from a recent international OECD survey, published in Social Science Research. ‘Having a well-stocked book shelf at home gives teenagers an advantage in life. Today, children who have at least eighty books at home have above-average linguistic, mathematical and technological skills.’
Greater economic development also depends on books, in these times of great importance for the ‘knowledge economy.’ Also, understanding how to prompt a real ‘paradigm shift’ towards a sustainable economy, in environmental and social terms, and a circular and civil economy, which cares not only about producing new wealth, but also working out how to redistribute it, to drastically reduce inequality and poverty. The Nobel committee awarded its Prize in Economics a few days ago to three scholars, Michael Kremer, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, for their research on poverty and how to tackle it.
From books, which are a form of long-term training over much of school and working life, as we wrote in last week’s blog, and by researching and addressing the questions posed by science and technology, we can learn become more knowledgeable and build a better future.
Genetic engineering and the evolution of artificial intelligence pose ethical, social and technical questions, which demand of all of us a sharper, more refined awareness of what we are and what we can become, right from childhood. We need engineers, poets, philosophers, engineers and technicians who know how to ask and present questions, writers and artists who are can take on and explain modernity and its paradoxes. This is a job not only for sophisticated and specialist elites, but from all citizens. Citizenship, with its rights and duties, opportunities and responsibilities, is learned from childhood. Rodari was a teacher (whence his ‘learn to do difficult things,’ as we touched on last week). Twentieth-century literature, with its essential books (by Conrad, Melville, Calvino, Gramsci, Keynes, Don Milani and so many others) is a very generous source.
‘Knowledge that matters’ is the motto of the Bocconi University in Milan. An original contemporary artist, Lorenzo Petrantoni, has made this the basis of an installation that will be unveiled tomorrow afternoon, in the large space in front of the entrance to the university, in Via Röntgen. It consists of large letters covered with thousands of tiny pieces of paper taken from documents, photographs, degree theses, strips of mathematical and economic calculations (‘Calculations and algorithms go beyond economics,’ Petrantoni claims) and books. Again we come back to books, and the duty and above all the pleasure of reading and writing.
Perhaps Stéphane Mallarmé was exaggerating a little when he said that ‘the world exists in order to end up as a book.’ But, brilliance of his aphorism aside, the French poet understood the value of a well-written page. Without the stories buried in books, we will never be better people.