If you look at dystopian fiction, there are lots of examples of societies in which reading (or reading certain things) has been outlawed or is strictly limited. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are just three examples. And, in an interesting aside, these books have themselves been banned and challenged. I know you can think of many others like them. In all of them, only one way of thinking, believing, and living is considered acceptable, and it’s imposed on everyone. To do that, those in charge must silence any disagreement or dissent. So, they deny access to any different ideas that may be considered ‘offensive’ or ‘dangerous.’ In other words, any ideas that differ from the official dogma. And a lot of those ideas come from books.
If you visit this blog at all regularly, you’ll know that it’s a blog about books – well, mostly about crime fiction books. And if you share your thoughts here, thank you. Every time someone stops by and shares ideas, I learn. I get new perspectives about books I’ve read, and new ways to think about a lot of things. And the books we talk about here give us all interesting ideas.
It’s the same with the Virtual Crime Book Club I’ve joined. Thanks to our moderator, Rebecca Bradley, people from around the world gather once a month to discuss a crime fiction novel. We don’t always agree, and we don’t always like the books we’ve read. But I, for one, treasure our conversations. We read books by a variety of authors from different backgrounds. That means we get to talk about all sorts of ideas from all sorts of voices. We all have different opinions. That means we get to see the same book through different eyes. It’s a rich experience.
As a writer, I benefit immensely from other people’s ideas, even when (perhaps especially when) they disagree with mine. My writing is better for what I learn from others, and that includes other writers. And the more I read, the more and better ideas I get.
But that’s the thing. We really can’t grow and learn if there are no new ideas to spark that growth. And, as I mentioned, many of those ideas come from books and other things we read. Once we’re limited in what we can read, we become more limited in what we can think and how we can think about it. And that’s part of the loss that comes from banning books. Limiting what we read also limits the voices and perspectives we encounter, and that can have tragic consequences. It’s not surprising, then, that book banning is an important part of dystopian fictional societies.
This week in the U.S. is Banned Books Week. It’s a time to celebrate the access we have to all sorts of books written by many different authors. As I see it, it’s also a time to renew our commitment to preserving everyone’s right to choose what to read. You don’t have to like a book in order to believe that anyone who wants to do so should be able to read that book.
There are plenty of ways to support the right to read, and they don’t have to cost a lot of money. Here are a few ideas.
- Start or join a book club (this can be an online or onground club), so that everyone has a chance to talk about books. And listen to everyone’s ideas, including ideas new to you, or ideas you disagree with; that’s one way we learn.
- Help make reading accessible. There are several ways to do this, including being a volunteer adult literacy tutor or a ‘homework helper’ for children.
- Help make books available. People can’t explore the ideas in books if they don’t have them. So, support libraries. Donate your books when you’ve finished with them. Support groups that provide books to those who don’t have them. These are all ways to make it easier for everyone to have access to books.
- Pay attention to local and national debates and events, and please, don’t be complacent. Be alert and speak up against attempts to limit what people can read.
- Find out what policies your local schools have about books and reading. Do they support students reading a wide variety of books? Are there books by a variety of authors with a variety of voices? If not, speak up about it. Critical reading starts at a young age.
It’s easy to take the right to read what we choose for granted, especially in wealthy societies where books and ideas are easily available. But it doesn’t take much for that to change. Banned Books Week is a good time to resolve not to let that happen.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Soft Pack’s Answer to Yourself.