Protest Reading

In these days of bold ignorance, reading in public is an act of resistance. A world that follows the uninformed to perdition requires those who stand as witnesses. Those who read. As a cabinet of the wealthiest people in the country is being assembled we need to remind each other that wisdom and wealth aren’t the same thing. Not even close. We read to improve our minds and we find, in such reading, that wealth increases happiness only to a point. Excess wealth leads to misery, but like the addicted, those who have it just can’t stop. Stop, I say, and pick up a book. To help with this my wife sent along the Banned Book Advent calendar. That’s not to say we can read a book a day, but I believe the world would be a better place if we could. Especially if those books were banned.

You see, banned books cause us to think. That’s the payoff. I’ve read many, many banned books. Some of them I didn’t like very much, but that’s not the point. Liking what you read may lubricate the process, but it is the reading itself that stretches the mind. Makes use of mental muscles we didn’t know that we had. Those who ban books want prejudiced minds to prevail. Think about it: prejudice comes from the combination of the prefix for “already” and the root for “judging.” The prejudiced have already decided. Reading challenges. It has from the earliest days of myths on clay down to the era of ordered electrons on a flat screen. Reading makes you question. The thought police prefer mindless acquiescence. Want to show your true colors? Pull out a book and read.

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The season of Advent is one of anticipation. We all know what’s behind door 25, but the journey is the point. That journey is better when it’s literate. When I travel my carryon always has books. More than I can read on the trip, just in case. Books are banned because we fear knowledge. Once exposed to an idea we must deal with it. Far simpler to lock it away in some sealed room and continue to do things like it’s still the 1450s. Before Twitter started revolutions, books did. When we put down our books we are opening an invitation to ignorance. Last month showed what happens when that invitation is given. I won’t make it through a book a day this season, but I flip out my reading material whatever chance I get. And I believe a better future will result.

Biblical Stories

The Bible had quite a week last week. It went from being vetoed as the “state book” of Tennessee to making it onto the list of the ten most challenged and banned books of the year for the first time. Did you ever get that feeling that you should’ve thought a bit more closely about career options? I mean, the Bible’s not half bad. Yes, it has some naughty bits, a few instances of cursing, and adult situations. There are homicides, suicides, and genocides. It endorses slavery and advocates religious intolerance. It’s not all bad news, however.

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We find it easy to make summary judgments based on our own tendency to elevate human products to divine status. That which is most holy, after all, becomes the most profane when it’s defiled. The Bible itself can be like any other book. Printed on paper, bound between two covers, it contains ideas that must be interpreted. There’s no such thing as “just reading.” Even that road sign that says “slow children” is open to hermeneutics. What is objectionable is the use to which the Bible is put. And that use is objectionable due to the claims made about it. Saying that God rolled up his immaterial sleeve and took a transcendent pen into his incorporeal hand and began to scrawl is a bit naive. We know that people wrote the Bible—and much of it is sublime—and other people compiled it into a book that eventually acquired sacred status. It wasn’t born holy, it had to grow into it.

Once the Bible became objectified it turned into what people eventually use all objects for: a weapon. We can take sticks and stones and break your bones (no, that’s not in the Bible), and we can take paper and ink and hang you as a witch. Or pillory you as a liberal. Or say that it forbids the love you feel in your God-given heart. Something strange has happened here. The Bible’s not a bad book. It’s a bit on the long and repetitious side, but it has many, many memorable sayings and noble sentiments. Entire civilizations have been based on it. Or readings of it. They’ll ask you to put your hand on it and swear in court, and then they’ll ban it so your kids can’t read it. It’s been a tough week for the Good Book. Somehow, however, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it because people love a conflicted story.

Real Reading Rainbow

Libraries rule. According to recent studies libraries rate higher than religious institutions, according to public surveys, in their usefulness to society. From the lost library of Alexandria of yore to the local Carnegie, libraries have been the repositories of information almost from the beginning of civilization itself. Last week the American Library Association, according to an article forwarded to me by my wife, and the Banned Books Week planning committee, announced a theme for this year’s recognition of the books various groups (many of them religious) tell us we shouldn’t read. Banned Book Week, of course, falls in September. It might seem strange that planning has to go into this, but the banning of books has never ceased and the list grows year by year. I recently mentioned John Green, one of the authors who frequently appears on banned lists for children. In an age when encouragement to read should be running high, we hide behind platitudes to keep our eyes toward a predetermined prize. Among the reasons frequently given for banning a book: its religious outlook. I.e., the “wrong” one.

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I often wonder why we think sheltering children who are old enough to read from the collective knowledge of the human race does them any favors. Our culture so successfully removes us from nature that we don’t experience the “facts of life” that our ancestors no doubt noticed early and often. Violence, sex, drugs, and death, however, haven’t become any less common. They are only hidden until their knowledge hits with often catastrophic force, leading to neuroses about how unsafe our world really is. A function of story, if neurologists are to be believed, is to help us navigate the many trials we’ll encounter by seeing how others have done it before. I don’t doubt that there is age-appropriate material for children, but they understand a lot more than adults like to think they do. In my teaching days I was always amazed at how much undergraduates knew that I was only beginning to discover as a professor. Books seem a good way to introduce knowledge appropriately.

The internet, of course, gives access to unvetted knowledge to anyone with access to a computer or phone. Published books, it used to be, had the added value of passing through editorial hands on their way to public presentation. A funny thing happened on the way to the library. We’ve democratized the writing of books through self-publishing, but we’ve not yet ceased to ban them. Perhaps the real way to protect our children is to listen to them. We seem to think telling is better than hearing, although the flow of knowledge can go both ways. Instead of banning books for our young we might all benefit from opening of our own minds.

East of Nowhere

EastOfEdenThere was a time when you could assume a lot about your readers. Although it was only a little more than a half century ago, John Steinbeck could assume a biblically literate readership. East of Eden is so thoroughly pervaded with, one might say interlarded with, the Bible that the key scene could have three men sitting up half the night discussing 16 verses of Genesis, and not one of them being a priest or preacher. The earnestness of their conversation is haunting in its intensity. You know the boys will be named Cain and Abel and that only one of them will come out of this alive. Okay, so they decide on Caleb and Aron, but you get the picture. Of course their father is Adam. Even the title of the book is drawn from the last words of the 16th verse.

Ironically, this biblically literate author is one of the most frequently banned from high schools. Some censors can’t get beyond thinking that being good is the same thing as being a realist. In East of Eden, characters are flawed, and they tramp out the course laid in the Bible with an unwitting solemnity. The entire book hinges on the ability to change one’s fate, and yet, the characters dutifully enact their parts. Those who watch over the morals of youth are bothered by an occasional word with four letters, which, I must say, Steinbeck uses with moderation. They mistake the packaging for the message.

But why should we care? Hasn’t the world moved on inexorably these past sixty years? It is the wisdom of Lee, the Chinese servant, who answers this. “Any writing that has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important.” This does not refer to the Bible alone—although at this juncture in the story it does—but it is a message that many who simply dismiss the Bible as just silly myths would do well to remember. Lee is a literate character who turns to Marcus Aurelius for comfort as well as other classics. Sometimes the Bible is regarded as so holy that we forget it too is a classic. Classics become what they are through the impact they have on innumerable people. East of Eden is considered a classic although the author walked this earth just half a century ago. And those who reject Steinbeck for their children would do well to read the Bible they would put back into schools in his place, if only to consider the irony.