The benefit of reading is like oxygen. You cannot smell it but you will suffocate without it.
by Justina Dobush
Translated from the Ukrainian by Yulia Lyubka
You read and read and read. You love some and you love others. Žižek says not to love the new hysterical left, Peterson says to love yourself, not to love feminists or the same new hysterical left. The New York Times says to read about people's rights, Trump says to read Twitter, Putin says not to read anything at all. Zuckerberg tells Cambridge Analytica to read other people’s messages, Islamists say to read the Quran, the Ministry of Justice doesn't read the constitution, the younger generation reads only Telegram and Instagram. Mom is still reading Remarque, my ex has recently read Hłasko, another one is reading Stalin's biography, dad is reading boards and circuits, my brother is reading a coffee maker manual, my sister is reading accounting reports, and grandma is reading Psalms with St. Peter. I’m reading the series of conversations with Ukrainian writers ― I am in the no-win situation.
The older generation likes to say that, "young people do not read anymore," but statistics show that young people read more than anyone else. After all, everyone reads, and they do it every day. They read billboard advertisements, bus timetables, news, packs of groceries and household chemicals, political and election booklets ― simply to find out there's no sense in reading them ― the weather, the color of the sky and clouds before sunset, the altitude of the swallows' flight, wrinkles on people's faces, their own body and its illnesses. Reading doesn't exactly mean reading books, although books tell us exactly the same as billboard advertisements, bus schedules, news, election booklets, the weather, the color of the sky and clouds before sunset, the altitude of the swallows' flight, wrinkles on people's faces, your own body and its sores. And, if you don't read books, you will still read signs, newspapers, packagings, the weather, wrinkles, and somebody will definitely tell you about the altitude of the swallows' flight. If you don't read books, there will always be Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, Quora, Gmail, Watsapp or your bank statements at hand. If you don't read books, you will still read the menu, bills, comments from your subscribers, the Uber's "I am here for you" message, your own to-do list and the gym schedule. You won't die if you don't read books. You won't die from the lack of impressions, thoughts, sleepless nights in the style of "what do I do in this world?", existential crises, knowledge about the Balkan wars and crazy ideas that changed or at least tried to change the world. You won't die and for the most part, you won't even feel uncomfortable. You won't die and be left alone. You won't die and won't lose anything at all, because you can't lose what you don't have. You won't die. You won't get better or worse. You won't become a vegetable or a fruit. You won't lose anything, you won't commit suicide, you won't be publicly harassed. You won’t be lynched. You won't have a full-fledged personality, but you can be valuable. You can be anything you want or you can be nobody. Of course, you are a human and sooner or later you will die. But you'll know that it is not because you didn't read books. You'll die, but what sort of person will you be when you die? Will you be enlightened, depressed, disappointed, quiet, cold, cheerful, content, because everything will be over? It will be special in your own way. And it'll have an epithet to it even if you haven't read any books. You will still have your death. It will still happen. You will still feel the last thought you won't be able to remember. So, why do we need books? If there are long reads, reportages, online courses on how to live masterfully, oral Buddhist preachers, TV series, documentaries, cinematography (even including Bollywood), product packs, social networks, mass media, etc. And somewhere there, you can hear/see/read that scientists have proven that reading books affects mental activity. And then you get fed up with all those scientific reasonings, let people live their lives. It's you who influences the activity of your brain and all its whims. I'll never see you, scientists, nor will I see your test subjects. Anyway, it turns out that other scientists prove something else. Scientists can only cause dementia. Scientists don't know what the world is. The genuine, real world, where someone so smelly is standing next to you in a subway car that his smell is eating away the pages of those books. No, hold on, they do know, they are scientists, they aren’t celebrities, they also use subway. But then yes, okay. Do scientists know what it’s like to read a million news stories every day and try not to go crazy in the evening? Do they know what it’s like to look for what is left from your eyesight lying under a cushion in the evenings? They might know it too, though it is not for nothing that they all look so good in spectacles. Then let it be different. They don’t know how (without writing a dissertation for which you are paid money) to endure tons of words every single day that you don't want and don't even need to hear. To listen to how you should read to become wiser, when in fact you just need to make it to the morning because in the evening the thing you want the most is to put a bullet at least in your own calf. To listen to how humanity fails, how it always doesn't really live in the way scientists predict. To listen to how it could be better when you understand that you won’t do it better because you are not a genius, this is actually why God gave you conscience and intelligence ― to be able to accept it and not turn into a madman. How can you go read voluntarily (because scientists say so) when reading doesn't turn you on, and there will always be more useful/important things to mince the time left for you? As a matter of fact, just like radiation or carbon monoxide, the benefit of reading is colorless and odorless. You don't know its consequences, you cannot feel it until it penetrates the body so much that the inevitability will stand close and wait for its course. The benefit of reading is like oxygen: you will never smell it, but you'll suffocate without it. You'll never know for sure where your cancer came from. You'll never know for sure whether reading, among other reasons, has really affected your life. You will never know whether drinking 2 liters of water a day saved you from another wrinkle. You'll never know it for certain because of this super complex world.
That’s why you can simply try it. The problem, here, is that you’re not going to change the world with it, you’ll hardly save one life with it or find out what happens after. You can only persuade yourself that it's beneficial for you. That it is another exercise for long life.
This is why the 21st century is so bad ― the myth of reading has almost been destroyed, and we won't find out anytime soon whether it is fatally bad or fatally good. It will be difficult to calculate this, just as it is difficult to understand the cause of a tumor growth. “Reading books” is like a beloved, late-born, desired, and only child that was suddenly thrown into a cruel world whom you want both to help and to say "it serves you right". This child is smart but naive. And they must deal with the world all by themselves otherwise it will devour them.
“Reading books" has suddenly found itself amidst social networks, virtual knowledge, and sublimations of pleasure or education, though quite grown-up (that is, the oldest among other children), it behaves immaturely and thinks that this game will not work without it. Somehow all other kids manage to play without it. They know how to be friends, communicate and listen to others, they don't consider themselves that much better only because their parents are well-off. They compete and share experiences, memorize them, use them, explore the environment in every possible way. While a slightly mischievous child of bourgeois parents disassociates themself from the world they cannot get on with due to far-fetched intellect and unhealthy self-esteem, the inability of being punished and, therefore, overgrowing with thoughts that they do not understand it all and don't want to be friends with an allegedly more handsome or conditionally better child. The child of "reading books" has grown up in an ivory tower intolerant of real life, though they were always able to go against their parents' will, break the rules, go underground. They could and still can do it all. The question is whether they are courageous enough to admit that, no matter how painful it is, the planet continues to orbit the Sun without them, Gehenna is not raging around, and people are not eating from the ground with their hands. That mischievous child of "reading books" has finally gone out into the world, don't help them anymore, let them deal with everything on their own. They aren’t stupid, they’ll cope with it. Just stop forcing others to make friends with them and love them. Let them recollect themself, they have always had privileges. The time has come for the competitive struggle for people's conscience. Every way to acquire pleasure or knowledge is worthy of respect. Reading should consider these alternative ways, whether they be social networks or online courses.
They appear at the beginning of a new season, at the end of each season, before important events, after important events, as a beginning, and as a result. We read them zealously and take notes on the most interesting parts; we spread and forget them; we re-read them and note which ones of them we already have. Lists, nowadays irreplaceable.
So there are the lists of books for rainy weekends, the lists of books for sunny days, the lists for summer, autumn, winter, and spring. The lists of forbidden books, the list of the most controversial ones, the list of bad books, the list of good books, the list of books about war, love, concentration camps, migrants, travelers, sages, politics, sex, drugs, cats, lost worlds and the most famous literary pamphlets, silhouettes, figures that changed the world for the better, for the worse, fled and were not found. Are there any lists of the lists already? And what about the lists of books that didn't get on any lists?
Everyone has their own story about a list of books. Owing to them I once discovered many wonderful books, for I needed some guidance in order to understand the coordinate systems of the marvelous world of literature. Then they started to annoy me and looked like something primitive because at a certain point there were too many of them, and too many people who went through the trouble of making them. I used to shudder from the very title "Top Books for/about". They helped me not to spend too much time browsing new world releases where a book had turned into the desirable product. But then came the moment when I noticed this laziness of searching. In fact, not only do we deprive ourselves of looking at the rest of the books, we devalue or simply forget and basically let them circle down the drain of history.
What is the use of these lists? They may perhaps group the books in your head according to their topics as if they are on the shelves and you may remember them better. But grouping your own knowledge is one thing, whereas grouping something for others is quite a risky task. Usually, lists include something that we already know, something that is on sale at the moment, something that you can possibly buy by clicking on the link (oh, for which the authors of the lists receive their penny too). If your book was unfortunate enough to get into one of the current lists, even if you're already dead, then I'm so sorry for you because it means that for most of the readers you will be gone forever. The other side of this problem is not only in forgetting but in competitiveness. Here, again, we return to an author, that "hostage" of readers and creators of the lists. Not only do you have to think about the readers when writing a book nowadays, but you also have to consider those who compile lists. For can you guess right and be able to get into the list of "the most useful books in the 21st century", even if the first half of the 21st century has not passed yet?
Also, due to the subjectivity of lists (because they are made by living people), we always run the risk of missing something, especially given the political correctness and censorship of our time. Sometimes I wonder how it so happened that Lolita hasn’t yet been publicly burnt somewhere in New York. In this case, you can never guess what is worse: the monopolization of the market by "convenient" bestsellers that seem to be written on carbon paper, or that we trust subjective lists that obey the above-mentioned factor because publishers pay a good penny for including their new releases into the allegedly candid guides.
On the other hand, let's not forget to thank the lists. If it weren’t for them, hipsters would have long ago lost their way between the bookshelves of the vintage or Instagram stores. Talking about hipsters, we'll never know anyway the correlation of the books they did read with the ones they bought and whose pictures they published on one of their favorite social networks.
These lists may serve as luminaries for certain people, but I would very much like to see they are not misused. Finding the right book is always a special adventure. Searching for a book is an exercise, going beyond oneself, diving into streams of information, choking on unnecessary sources, the hard work of intuition, listening to your own senses, counting the number of heartbeats per second to determine whether certain words excite you; it is an attempt not only to trust yourself, but to rely only on yourself. Searching for a book is an act of meditation, learning about the farthest corners of your personality because you can sometimes find something that can tickle your fancy, and you would have never even thought that reproduction of lizards could be so interesting. That is why I hate lists: using them we forget how many fascinating books lurk at the bottom of the publishing ocean. We no longer explore the Mariana Trench. We no longer get injured when the books from the top bookshelves of second-hand shops fall on our feet, leaving a bloody footprint. We have forgotten that reading books is not a convenient and comfortable exercise because it is connected with and built in such a way that you have to cross another horizon and find a new one every time. Learning something new is interesting, but at the same time, it is always inconvenient because you are breaking your own worldview. And if someone wants to make reading books as convenient and accessible as possible, then perhaps he or she shouldn't read at all? Let them watch YouTube, attend shitty online courses and limit themselves to long reads.
And yet, I am absolutely sure that if "reading books" is really essential for society and humanity in general, it will win the love of others, they will convert to it. Even without any recommendations or lists. The thing is that no one has to be forced. May the best win.