Usually when I read Italian I don’t use a dictionary. Only a pen to underline the words I don’t know, the sentences that strike me.

When I come upon a new word, I have to make a decision. I could stop for a moment to learn the word immediately; I could mark it and go on; or I could ignore it. Like certain faces among the people I see on the street every day, certain words, for some reason, stand out, and leave an impression on me. Others remain in the background, negligible.

After I finish a book I return to the text and diligently check the words. I sit on the sofa, with the book, the notebook, some dictionaries, a pen strewn around me. This task of mine, which is both obsessive and relaxing, takes time. I don’t write the definitions in the margin. I make a list in the notebook. At first, the definitions were in English. Now they’re in Italian. That way I create a kind of personal dictionary, a private vocabulary that traces the route of my reading. Occasionally I page through the notebook and review the words.

I find that reading in another language is more intimate, more intense than reading in English, because the language and I have been acquainted for only a short time. We don’t come from the same place, from the same family. We didn’t grow up with one another. This language is not in my blood, in my bones. I’m drawn to Italian and at the same time intimidated. It remains a mystery, beloved, impassive. Faced with my emotion it has no reaction.

The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world. Sometimes a word can provoke an odd response. One day, for example, I discover the word claustrale (cloistered). I can guess at the meaning, but I would like to be certain. I’m on a train. I check the pocket dictionary. The word isn’t there. Suddenly I’m enthralled, bewitched by this word. I want to know it immediately. Until I understand it I’ll feel vaguely restless. However irrational the idea, I’m convinced that finding out what this word means could change my life.

I believe that what can change our life is always outside of us.

Should I dream of a day, in the future, when I’ll no longer need the dictionary, the notebook, the pen? A day when I can read in Italian without tools, the way I read in English? Shouldn’t that be the point of all this?

I don’t think so. When I read in Italian, I’m a more active reader, more involved, even if less skilled. I like the effort. I prefer the limitations. I know that in some way my ignorance is useful to me.

I realise that in spite of the limitations the horizon is boundless. Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility. I know that, since I’m an apprentice, my work will never end.

When you’re in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar longing in me. I don’t want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity.

Every day, when I read, I find new words. Something to underline, then transfer to the notebook. It makes me think of a gardener pulling weeds. I know that my work, just like the gardener’s, is ultimately folly. Something desperate. Almost, I would say, a Sisyphean task. It’s impossible for the gardener to control nature perfectly. In the same way it’s impossible for me, no matter how intense my desire, to know every Italian word. But between the gardener and me there is a fundamental difference. The gardener doesn’t want the weeds. They are to be pulled up, thrown away. I, on the other hand, gather up the words. I want to hold them in my hand, I want to possess them.

When I discover a different way to express something, I feel a kind of ecstasy. Unknown words present a dizzying yet fertile abyss. An abyss containing everything that escapes me, everything possible.

Excerpted with permission from In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Penguin Books.