A Controversial Book Makes Us Reflect on Our Reading Choices

How we choose what to read and why?

Summer in Italy is not a season. It is a lifestyle.

At the top of the season, in August (isn’t it curious it is the name of a Roman Emperor?) every kind of activity closes for, at least, two weeks. More commonly, almost every worker, who is not engaged in tourism, gets the whole month for vacation. Everything is slowing, both in private and public management. It is not simply laziness; in Italy, August can reach 40°C, for many hours a day, for many days in a row. That is why, Italians who cannot get away, find some relief on vacation at the seaside, or in the Alps.

Every Summer, as far as I can remember, vacations are seasoned with three kinds of fads: a fashion color, a song, and a book.

And here is the matter. This year, General Vannacci, who is still in service, wrote a book, whose title can be translated as “The world upside down”. Within a few days, the book wound up a case, as some social media published some extracts, that can be considered at least: racist, sexist, and homophobic. The General stated that he was just giving his point of view.

His upside-down world is simply our present world, but the author of the book seems unable to take it as a normal civil world. Same-sex marriages, transgenders, migrants, “other than white” skins, vegans, animal activists, environment activists… in short, anyone who is not a “conservative white catholic” is considered, by the General, not normal.

The book sparked outrage and heated discussions nationwide. The debate wasn’t just about the book itself, but about larger issues: freedom of expression and the question of censorship. Indeed, the readers, who defended the freedom of expression for every sort of opinion, argued that a free Country should allow to publish whatever a person feels like sharing. So, was such content to be censored or allowed in the name of free speech? Many people suggested that censoring the book would have been an illegal act, and finally, they asserted that whoever refused to read it was just prejudiced, as you cannot judge a book by its rumors, as well as by its cover.

I did not read it, and I felt that this last critic had hit a nerve. Was I biased because I was not intrigued by the General’s statements? Was I judging the book by its cover?

Honestly, I do not think so. But I had to reflect on the reasons why I choose to read something and leave something else. In fact, I am very interested in reading about society and whatever is related to the behavior of a group, or a nation. So, the theme of the book should attract my interest. But…

Every day, a huge quanity of books, articles, and essays is published, for every single topic. So every reader must have a compass to decide what is worthwhile reading, and what does not deserve time. My personal compass is working in this way. First of all, the topic of reading must be on my bucket list. The book has to be published by either an author or an editor I trust. Otherwise, I am glad to follow the suggestions of some readers I trust. The book by the General was self-published, with no professional editing.

Besides, I am sure that every avid reader chooses only what is very well written. As I have a bit of reading experience, I know since the incipt if the writer is a good one or a novice. The few lines I read were tedious and made questionable use of the Italian syntax.

Then, like almost everyone, I read to learn something or to have some pleasant entertainment, so the topic I already know has to be expressed, at least, from an original point of view. The General insisted that he was just summarizing what the great majority of Italians think, but they are not feeling free to express themselves. Let’s assume it is the majority (but there are no polls quoted) why should anyone read a book that is the same as listening to the people while sitting in a bar, or it is the same as reading the mass of comments on any social media? If you are just collecting the people’s talks, there is no added value.

And finally, why should anyone read a point of view that tries to explain our own life? Let me be clear: I am not a homophobe, nor racist, and of course, I am not sexist. But I am a white Italian. I think it would be much more interesting to read the point of view of a black migrant who lives here; his vision of my homeland would certainly be much more original and would point out something about my Country that I do not know.

So, maybe I judged Gen. Vannacci’s book by its cover. But I also judge in the same way a stimulating book: I decide to read a book, if the choice of the cover, something in the words of the author or the editor, suggests to me that I will find a unique viewpoint, a new knowledge or a pleasant time.

That is why, this Summer, I found relief from the 40°C reading some mentally refreshing books, despite their being no fads.

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