2666: You have to read books

Then he dictated recipes for Endive and Shrimp Salad and Broccoli Salad and then he said that man couldn’t live on healthy food alone. You have to read books, he said. Not watch so much TV. The experts say TV doesn’t hurt the eyes. I’m not so sure. It won’t do your eyes any good, and cell phones are still a mystery. Maybe they cause cancer, as some scientists say. I’m not saying they do or they don’t, but there you have it. What I’m saying is you have to read books. The preacher knows I’m telling you the truth. Read books by black writers. But don’t stop there. This is my real contribution tonight. Reading is never a waste of time. I read in jail. That’s where I started to read. I read a lot. I went through books like they were barbecue. In prison they turn the lights out early You get in bed and hear sounds. Footsteps. People yelling. as if instead of being in California, the prison was inside the planet Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. You feel cold and hot at the same time and that’s a clear sign you’re lonely or sick. You try to think about other things, sure, nice things, but sometimes you just can’t do it. Sometimes a guard at the nearest desk turns on a lamp and light from that lamp shines through the bars of your cell. This happened to me any number of times. The light from a lamp set in the wrong place, or from the fluorescent bulbs in the corridor above or the next corridor over. Then I would pick up my book and hold it in the light and get to reading It wasn’t easy because the letters and the paragraphs seemed frenzied or spooked in that unpredictable, underground world. But I read and read anyway, sometimes so fast that even I was surprised, and sometimes very slowly, as if each sentence or word were something good for my whole body not just my brain And I could read like that for hours, not caring whether I was tired and not dwelling on the inarguable fact that I was in prison because I had stood up for my brothers, most of whom couldn’t care less whether I rotted or not. I knew I was doing something useful. That was all that counted. I was doing something useful as the guards marched back and forth or greeted each other at the change of shift with friendly words that sounded like obscenities to my ear and that, thinking about it now, might actually have been obscene. I was doing something useful. Something useful no matter how you look at it. Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach. And you, who are so kind, now you must be asking: what did you read, Barry? I read everything. But I especially remember a certain book I read at one of the most desperate moments of my life and it brought me peace again. What book do I mean? What book do I mean? Well, it was a book called An Abridged Digest of the Complete Works of Voltaire, and I promise you that is one useful book, or at least it was of great use to me.

—Roberto Bolaño, 2666