“No man can be called friendless who has God and the companionship of good books” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, British poet).

In the era of communist censorship, a leading intellectual dares to speak to students “in code” about the wise Saul of Tarsus, without identifying him with the biblical figure of the Apostle Paul, so that only “connoisseurs”, readers of the Bible, can make the ideological connection, and ideologised atheists will be strangers to the forbidden bibliographical reference.

A young man escorts his new colleague through a park to the statue of Prometheus in chains, punished by the Olympian gods. He is delighted to find that she is able to identify the figure and the myth just by looking at it, without any explanation on his part, and so they decide, on the basis of this successfully passed “test”, that they will be good friends.

A famous doctor from Bucharest recounts the beginning of his career alongside the man who was to become his mentor and professional model: “In response to the unfortunate words of a fellow student, the professor exclaimed: ‘Oh, sancta simplicitas!’ Then to the class, ‘Who said that?’ There was silence. I plucked up courage and said, ‘Jan Hus, in Prague in 1415, standing at the stake, saw an old woman add a bundle of dry twigs to the many that were about to be lit.’ He looked at me, asked me my name and decided on the spot that I should be the head of the secondaries in the clinic.”

Moments of grace

Anyone who thinks that general knowledge should not take precedence over professional training and character when choosing collaborators, friends, and experts does not understand how closely they are linked. So closely, in fact, that those who have mastered the same cultural codes recognise each other in the most subtle and profound ways, recognise common values, common ideals of life, similar worldviews, views of life, of death, even of our meaning in the world.

Why should it be so important that we resonate with our fellow human beings on all these issues? Because there is a deep-seated desire in each of us to be known, understood, accepted, admired, supported, accompanied, respected, loved, and ultimately to be happy. God has placed the desire for happiness in us, just as He has also “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Otherwise these things would not have been able to arise in our minds, minds adapted to a world that is finite and perishable in all its aspects, and above all that produces unhappiness at every turn.

It goes without saying that such resonances occur rarely, in moments of grace that we cherish and long for. The resemblance we seek among the thousands of people with whom we come into contact in our lives comes from the desire not to feel alone in the world, to identify that alter ego, that twin of our personality with whom we have been talking since childhood, or in our mature imagination when we have an inner monologue or a mirror dialogue with our own conscience.

Perhaps the origin of the search for the greatest resemblance lies in the wonder of what psychologists call the “mirror stage”[1]: that stage of development of young children who discover their own person when they look at themselves in the mirror for the first time and know that their own image is in front of them. It is an image as a whole with edges that distinguish it from any other creature. When we love, there is also something in that love that is part of the search for and rediscovery of the self, of the essential similarity with the other.

Why do we read?

Not so long ago we, or our parents or grandparents, corresponded with our loved ones through letters. Many couples were formed as a result of avid writing, getting to know each other from afar, and their box of old, yellowed but vibrant envelopes is a testament to decades of correspondence. Depending on how close they were to their addressees, the letters were shorter or longer, more practical or more philosophical, simpler or more fragrant and embellished.

Let us ask ourselves: do these habits seem outdated because technology has evolved or because our spirit has become impoverished, because the quiet time for receiving messages has diminished and patience and interest have diminished, or because technology users have become lazy?

Letters were, and still are, a way for lovers to express themselves in writing, even if the form is now electronic rather than traditional paper. They feel the same way today: that they can put in writing what they otherwise would not have been able to verbalise as deeply. Indeed, the written message has virtues that the dialogue does not have: firstly, it gives you more courage, more clarity of ideas and more elegance of expression; secondly, the moment of reading a heartfelt statement remains in front of your eyes, can be repeated, can be preserved until death, can nourish the soul over the years and can become a more solid testimony than a mere fleeting word. The moment when someone tells you that you have become their “favourite author”, overcoming the temptation of reading other texts, is a powerful emotional affirmation that strengthens friendship.

The communion between two people is also strengthened by reading together, possibly at the same time: if you come across a good book and are fascinated by the author, the story, the ideas you are reflecting on, you will feel the need to share it with the person next to you, to discuss it together, to reveal and find each other, enriched by what you are reading at the same time. It is even recommended that couples read aloud together, possibly in the evening, to create a habit of just the two of them developing successful patterns of communication between spouses.

Why is this model more beneficial than simply discussing everyday events? Because the level of communication goes beyond the banal exchange of information and interpretations. It goes further to establish values and principles of life, to outline common ideals and to combine thoughts that are nobler and more spiritual than those of daily worries with elevated, positive feelings such as serenity, joy, surprise, amusement, delight, dreaming, pampering, tenderness, compassion, solidarity, encouragement, love, piety, gratitude, appreciation, etc. We all feel the need to share as many things, actions, and gestures as possible with those we love; when we enter the world of books together, not just games, food, fun, fashion, and so on, there is an extra bond, much deeper than others, because it involves feeling and thinking.

The emotional as well as the intellectual fulfilment is that reading helps us to master language better and to formulate convincing and appealing thoughts about ourelves and our significant others.

Reading also helps us to have more serious criteria for choosing our friends, colleagues, and work partners. And, most importantly, it gives us the satisfaction of that rare authentic communication that finally makes us feel that we are in tune with someone in this world and that we have a chance to be happy through a peer of our own.

On the other hand, reading, even alone, prepares us for more beautiful life experiences, because it opens the eyes of our mind and soul to them, helps us to perceive them, not to pass them by unaware or indifferent. The company of books is one that takes us out of the pressure and precariousness of the street, the block of flats, the market, the workplace, the hospital, and so on. The company of authors with an elevated spirit, with fascinating stories that open up worlds where we can breathe easier and live more beautifully, even keeps us above the misery of everyday life. Our gain is two-fold: we get the special company of authors and characters who are more graceful than some of our flesh-and-blood peers, and we get to choose them as our companions.

Many of the cultural figures who have lifted up the society in which they lived were themselves lifted up from poor, sad, deprived backgrounds through reading. Reading was their hydrogen balloon that lifted them above, into a life worth living: from Mihai Eminescu to Marin Preda, from Nicolae Iorga to Arsenie Boca, from Dostoevsky to the Brothers Grimm, from Balzac to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Through the books they read, they were there, in history, in the imagination, in the diversity of the planet, taking part in the unfolding of worlds from which their worlds were born and which they shared with us. By accompanying them, we ourselves are refined, improved, enlivened, and can help others to rise to a journey above it all, in our beautifully coloured, hydrogen-filled balloon.

Happy rest

Years ago we learned that the Finns are the world’s leading producers of film scripts. How do you explain this? Finland’s climate and geography mean that its inhabitants experience darkness, cold, insularity, and social isolation for many months of the year, and the habit of reading rescues them through imagination and creativity. This is something to admire and, why not, to emulate! Isolation and loneliness may plague us too, but books always prove a faithful and generous companion, food for the mind and heart with no expiry date; a Plato is as fresh as a C. S. Lewis.

When reading decentres you, you see the world from above, with all the fascinating things that may not be in you but are in its vastness; you see them from angles you couldn’t otherwise access, much like a drone exploring and filming glaciers you couldn’t climb, forests you couldn’t glide over, or waterfalls you couldn’t float over.

In this way you not only form a hobby, a pleasurable and relaxing habit, but you also broaden your horizons—you understand more, you see more, you can pass it on to others, and you can be of use to them, which is a great satisfaction, even greater than the hobby itself.

And when you love an activity, when you discover its pleasure, you no longer have to worry about concentration and attention—you read because you are caught up in the action of the book or the world you see with your mind’s eye; when you are fascinated by what D’Artagnan or Winnetou, the soldier Svejk or Hercule Poirot have been up to, you don’t even question the choice of time, the allocation of time in your schedule—you read under the covers, by torchlight, after dark; you read instead of going out for entertainment, which now seems like a waste of time; or you read to keep up with the reading of someone important in your life, with whom you want to discuss the book afterwards. It all comes naturally, just as you feel like playing with your pet, talking to your children or calling your loved ones without planning these actions.

Moreover, the accumulated readings will prove to be mental and spiritual soothing in the hard, tough times when the real world becomes increasingly torturous. They will ensure, if they have been solid and healthful, the preservation of our free, untainted spirit, for they will also have refined our character.

Finally, let us not forget that there is a Book of Books which also gives us the standard of the truly desirable world, a Book whose Author invites us not only to be readers but co-authors! We have this privilege: to put our tiny footprint on the story of the happy ending of the whole planet…

Corina Matei advocates the cultivation of the habit of reading and projects on an imaginary screen the flight of the mind that allows itself to be won over by books.

[1]“Jacques Lacan, ‘Le stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je, telle qu’elle nous est révélée dans l’expérience psychanalytique’ (The mirror stage as a formator of the I function, as it is revealed to us in psychoanalytic experience), in ‘Revue française de psychanalyse’ (French journal of psychoanalysis), vol. 13, no. 4,1949, 449-455, available at https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k54444473.image.f3.langfr.”

“Jacques Lacan, ‘Le stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je, telle qu’elle nous est révélée dans l’expérience psychanalytique’ (The mirror stage as a formator of the I function, as it is revealed to us in psychoanalytic experience), in ‘Revue française de psychanalyse’ (French journal of psychoanalysis), vol. 13, no. 4,1949, 449-455, available at https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k54444473.image.f3.langfr.”