I love books as much as I love people, but if I’m honest with myself, sometimes I find a little more comfort in the company of books than in the presence of my fellow humans.

It’s hard for me to write about books and reading, not because it’s the first time I’m delving into one of my oldest and dearest passions, but because it’s an intimate activity that I’ve felt could easily slip into pretension when discussed.

Therefore, before launching into my plea for reading, I want to frame how I see things. I believe that reading is a transformative experience, but it has never guaranteed that those who engage in it consistently become better people. I don’t think that readers are superior to non-readers. Books don’t guarantee that life will become easier because of them. Sometimes it becomes harder, with the dilemmas they bring to light. Books open worlds, distil thoughts, stimulate the imagination, impart wisdom, raise questions, prompt change, and enrich inner life. But ultimately, they remain merely a tool with a final destination that is a personal choice.

My first interaction with reading was a dramatic one. Sometimes I wonder if I love certain things just because I don’t excel at them right away. If I close my eyes and think of the first book I ever read, I see myself very clearly in the second grade, in the third row, near the burning stove, terrified at the thought of my turn to read from the Romanian fairytale “Youth Without Age and Life Without Death.” I don’t remember why I thought it was such a big deal, but I remember feeling so small and helpless faced with the words.

I can’t say whether most children have a fascination with words, but to me, they seemed miraculous, a sort of code that everyone knows and accepts.

I remember the etymological dilemmas, like wondering why a table is called a “table” and not a “chair.” I felt they had a history, each with its own story, but these seemed like a mystery to everyone. And although their origin was an enigma, they were used by everyone in the same way, had the same meaning, and were a form of unity that I found astonishing.

Perhaps that’s why the fear of not fully understanding them was so great. The inability to decipher them was another form of alienation, which I felt as a personal fault. I was already a very quiet child, and written words seemed to be my escape, the lifeline I could cling to in order to express myself. Or perhaps debilitating perfectionism just weighed on me, like in many other moments.

I was extremely grateful for my glasses, which were supposed to help me read, but ironically, a screw came loose and fell under the desks just when it was my turn to read. I spent the rest of the hour searching for it with my classmates and the teacher, so I didn’t have to read then. The episode remained vivid in my mind and was emblematic of my aversion to books in the following years. Play, friends, and freedom attracted me infinitely more than books. I completely understand all the kids who confess to hating reading.

My pleasure for reading only began around the age of 10 when written words were no longer a mystery, nor a torment, just a tolerable obligation. A more serious illness had confined me to bed for a few days, and boredom was reaching painful levels. My older brother then brought me two books from the library, which I devoured because I had nothing better to do. I remain deeply grateful to that boredom and to my brother for choosing books that he knew would pique my interest. They were about amazing things, with adventurous characters, and the fact that I wasn’t forced to read them, but it was my decision, completely changed my attitude towards reading.

For a long time, I read to escape from my small, narrow world, to ride alongside Winnetou, to raft with Tom Sawyer, or to discover the world alongside Mary and Robert Grant in search of their father. I skimmed conscientiously but very quickly over descriptions and characterizations. What mattered were the action, the dialogue, and the fun. With an adult mind, I realise that the characters possessed things I ardently desired, that I was building a set of values because of them, and that I was beginning to see the world with different eyes. However, the construction of the characters was uniform. I knew very clearly who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, and whose side I wanted to be on.

Beyond black and white

Over all this construction came, like a cold shower, in the early years of high school, the books of Dostoevsky. For the first time, I encountered characters who entered my heart only to be despised a few pages later. I returned to better feelings only to be thrown back into dismay. I realise I was too young to understand their psychological depth, but the feeling that they were about real people, more real than anything I had read before, was mesmerising.

It’s hard for me to say that was the moment when I began to see people in other shades and to move away from the childish vision of black and white. But it was a turning point on the road to the end of which I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve arrived—that of discovering more about myself and those around me. Since then, I’ve sought out books that delve into the depths of humanity more often because they broaden my horizon of relationships and help me try to understand—understand myself, judge less, and look beyond the first impression.

One of the most beautiful moments for me is when I stumble upon a paragraph that touches parts of me deep inside and puts them into words in a way I could never achieve. And because they are put into words, all those abstract things inside the soul become reality. Satisfying this profoundly human need to have experiences expressed in words and the feeling of connection with someone from another culture, era, or social class is priceless. Although reading is inherently a solitary activity, it facilitates connection and openness. It provides an opportunity to explore more carefully the landscape of inner life and what can be shared from it. There are many who read and feel the need to write themselves, but not with the purpose of putting their words out into the world. They do it simply because writing has the power to clarify, to contain emotional weight, and to liberate.

It’s probably already evident that my readings are predominantly fiction. I acknowledge that for some, fiction is seen as superficial and a waste of time. However, I believe that good fiction has the ability to burst our own belief bubbles. If we’re honest with ourselves, in real life, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people. Differences in opinion push us away, and few of us have the capacity to surround ourselves with people very different from us. That’s precisely why books offer us the chance to comfortably approach human characters we wouldn’t want to spend too much time with in real life. Surprisingly, subsequent encounters with people similar to the characters we read about become easier because we’ve already taken an imaginary stroll through a fragment of their lives and understand them better.

Through the books we read, we actually live multiple lives and quench our thirst for the absolute. This perspective from Mario Vargas Llosa on fiction books is one of those things I couldn’t have put into words so beautifully: “We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute—the foundation of the human condition—and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.”

The same book, multiple perspectives

There are books that can offer more than we realise and have different echoes in those who read them. When I discovered this, I realised that the equation of reading is much more complex. The books in this world are not just the ones written, but they multiply with those who read them and become millions of times more.

The experience of a book club reveals so clearly that we can read the same book when in fact each of us reads a different one. I greatly enjoy participating in book clubs because after the discussions, I leave with many more perspectives. It’s not uncommon for me to hear a paragraph read by someone else and feel like it’s the first time I truly grasp its meaning, even though I had just read it alone. The perspective of someone who has been touched by it not only gives me the opportunity to better understand what I’m reading but also to better know the person who chose it.

Discussions about books are opportunities for vulnerability, safe spaces where doors open and invitations are extended inside. Visiting the chambers of someone else’s soul brings a little more understanding, increases the capacity for forgiveness, but also the courage to set boundaries. If you let them, books help you move away from the center of the world, gather joy and sorrow within reasonable limits, and bring you closer to the needs of others. A book can be the pretext for conversations we would never have the courage to have or about which we wouldn’t even know we have the need.

I was in my first year of teaching, in a challenging environment that left me feeling powerless. Sixth grade class A was one of my havens, as a space of trust and respect had already been established there. I tried to talk to the kids about the importance of reading without coming off like all the other adults who judged them for not reading. Whenever I found a topic that seemed to interest them, I subtly brought up a book related to that subject.

I don’t remember where the discussion about Anne Frank’s Diary started. All I know is that I left the class with a promise to bring the book for those interested in reading it. Little did I know that I was about to start a reading revolution, or that I would start my lessons with them by quelling complaints because some found it took too long to read it and they had to wait too long in line. With each child who read it, the enthusiasm grew, as those who finished the book would talk about the taboo subjects for their teenage minds that Anne addressed in her diary and about her life’s tragedy.

I was so thrilled by their fervour, by the philosophical discussions we had at the end of classes and during breaks, that I intended to raise money from friends to buy each of them the book. But then I remembered myself at their age, when I went to the library to return a book I had really enjoyed: how much it hurt to have to give it back and how I promised myself that when I grew up, I would never have to return a book again. I knew that rarity contributed to enthusiasm and that passing the book from one person to another was itself a pleasure and a motivation to finish it faster.

Anne Frank’s Diary returned to me intact, after being read by almost the entire class, with its spine slightly worn and its edges blackened. But it’s the dearest book in my library because it reminds me of the power of books and the joy with which they gather people around them. For those wondering, the kids didn’t stop there, and thanks to them, the school’s dusty library was reopened. I don’t know what effect books have had on their lives, whether they still love them or not, or if they’ve changed anything for the better. I can only trust that they’ve taken what they needed because I know all too well how generously a book travels through the world.

Andreea Irimia examines the power of books to cultivate empathy and strengthen relationships from a personal perspective and in an emotionally resonant manner.