I don’t know how different my life would be if I didn’t have books. It is actually a terrifying idea. My grandmother, who was a teacher like most of the women in my family, taught me to read before I started kindergarten, and since then, reading has been my passion. When I think about elementary school, I pretty much remember racing through my work so I could read. I remember getting lost for days in other worlds – and I feel so lucky that books still have that power over me. I am also very lucky that I was allowed to read widely. I read Stephen King’s It when I was thirteen years old. It was probably not appropriate for me at that age, but I loved it, and I turned out okay. My mother probably didn’t even know I was reading it, but I’m not so sure she would have stopped me anyway. I often read off of her shelf, which is also why I’ve read numerous V.C. Andrews books, none of them probably appropriate for my age. And it’s okay for parents to say that their child is probably not ready for a certain book yet. Because we have the right to read, it also means we have the right to choose books which we might enjoy – and which ones we might not. The books I love are not necessarily going to be loved by everyone else. And that’s great. Our differences are what make this world such an amazing place. But it is not okay for you to choose books for me. It’s not okay for you to make sure that those books aren’t available to me if I want to read them – that I can’t read that book because it offends you.
But I want to talk to my students, particularly those who refuse to read. I joke all the time about our summer reading books. I have suggested before that we send home a letter to students giving them a list of books that they aren’t allowed to read over the summer. If we told students they could not read something, then I guarantee they would want to. And I’m only half joking. But students, I want to suggest this. Choosing not to read at all is also, in a way, censorship. Now I know not everyone likes to read. Because books mean so much to me, that hurts my heart to hear. But that is your right. But please think about it like this. Not all great books are made into movies. And every movie you watch has been interpreted by someone else. That is someone else’s vision of the story. The director’s vision may be a great one, but your vision may be very different. You won’t know that if you never read. If you never read, you are censoring yourself from a lifetime of ideas. You are committing yourself to only seeing things the way others see them. Instead, discover your own way of seeing things.
So I challenge you to read whatever you want because you can. You have been blessed with the ability to read. You are blessed to live in a country which values your education. (I am a public school teacher, and no matter what you believe about the state of our schools, I am still an idealist and still believe that this country values education - despite some of the policies to the contrary.) So you have been given this great gift – literacy. Use it! You have the right to get lost in a book – any book – even if someone else doesn’t like that book. Even if someone else is offended by that book. Get offended by that book. That is also your right. It is your right to read something and not like what it says. Let’s have a conversation about it. Let’s discuss those ideas. But let’s not squash those ideas completely. Let’s not tell someone they aren’t allowed to think that way. Let’s read books that offend us and talk about why. Let’s read books that address tough issues and learn from them. Let’s just read books so that we can be swept away into a whole new world, one that is just for us, and let’s not let anyone take that away from us. Because when you read, you create your own version of that book based on who you are, and no one else has that exact same vision. Isn’t that awesome? And even though the writer is manipulating you in a way because they are using words to create ideas, you are also manipulating those words and ideas and it is so much better than a movie, where you are just the spectator. When you read a book, you are participating in that action. So let’s not take that away from anyone.
Let’s not take away the right of every human being to be moved and changed by a great book. To be a better person for the words that are written. Let’s celebrate the fact that we have the right to read. And then let’s talk about it. Because maybe having meaningful conversations about important things will change us all. And call me naïve, but I do believe that books have the power to make this world a better place. It’s why I write. It’s why I read. It’s why I try to pass that hunger for words on to my students. And it’s why I read banned books. I hope you will too.
A list of some of my favorite banned books:
The Great Gatsby
A Farewell to Arms
The Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Rings
(Really, if you look at the list, I’ve loved almost every book on there in one way or another. Just goes to show you that the best books makes us feel. Even if that feeling is anger.)
To learn more about Banned Books Week, visit http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/bannedbooksweek