On Books and How They’ll Save Us

The role of reading in our “Brave New World”

November 2016 was a hard month for me. I found that the month went by without my noticing.

One habit that went away without my realizing was reading books. After regularly reading a few books a month all year, I was surprised to realize I did not finish a single book in November.

Chapel Hill Library Book Sale — The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Today, I went to the Chapel Hill Library Book Sale. As I browsed the titles, I thought fondly of the books I saw that I had read before. Cry, The Beloved Country. A Lesson Before Dying. The Red Tent. The Color of Water. Cutting for Stone. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Books that I loved or didn’t, but all of which taught me about the world.

I excitedly picked up books that have long been on my “to be read” list and dropped them in my bag. $15 and 14 (ahem, 13 by women) books later, and I walked out feeling joyful. I had found a part of myself I had temporarily lost. I’m glad the misplacement had not been long, because books are especially good at getting people and societies through trying times.

There’s a reason why laws were passed making it illegal to teach a slave to read, and why many of those laws were passed after slave uprisings.

There’s a reason that, shortly after they came to power in 1933, the Nazis began a wide-spread book burning campaign.

Aside: One of the most unassuming and powerful memorials I have seen was the book burning memorial in Berlin. In a nondescript plaza, visitors can look through a window into the ground revealing rows and rows of empty bookshelves.

Book burning Memorial in Bebelplatz, Berlin

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and never is that more apparent than when the written word is suppressed.

Books allow us to learn and to think. If we are to get through the Trump presidency and move ahead as a nation we must organize, vocalize our concerns to our representatives, and talk to each other, but, at the end of the day, we must also come home and read a book.

Read books that make you feel joy. Read books that make you cry. Read books that support your beliefs, and read books that challenge them.

Read diversely. Read books written by people who have different lived experiences because of their race, time, class, gender, sexuality, politics, language, and homeland.

In The Invention of Wings, which I just finished, the author closes with a quote by Professor Julius Lester: “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.” Books allow us to do this. Books allow us to see ourselves in “the other.” While we should work to bring diversity into our whole lives, books let us fill in the gaps, allowing us to learn about experiences we otherwise would never know.

So, read. Read because books and the ability to read them are a gift. Read because books and the ability to read them are an essential part of democracy. Read because someone someday may try to take books and the ideas they hold away from you.

Read like our lives depend on it, because they do.

P.S. Don’t forget libraries are the best. Consider donating to your local library this holiday season.

“Libraries…are essential to the functioning of a democratic society…and libraries are the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt.