Each year, there’s something truly amazing about Banned Books Week.
OK, that probably marks me as a certified Grade-A geek. No big deal. Considering that my personal mountain range of books is about as extensive as Smaug’s dragon-hoard of gold (and about as poorly organized), it might be just a wee bit obvious that the printed word is important to me. And the electronic word. And sometimes the barely-legible handwritten word as well.
And so, when it comes time to remember the Battles of the Library Shelves I pay attention. And when the annual observance is over and … well, in the books for another year, I always have to shake my head in wonder.
Dragons don’t understand burglars. And bookworms don’t understand the effort to ban.
First of all, there’s the sheer audacity of the idea. Ever since childhood, I’ve been able to spend entire ages of human history in a library, trying to decide what I should be reading. The idea that someone who’s never met me could make that choice for me – in the negative – is laughable. Parents, OK, but strangers?
Then, there’s the unintended comedy that often arises. Among the many well-known challenged books (Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Harry Potter series) is the extremely innocuous picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Why? Because the author, Bill Martin, happened to have the same name as the writer of a book on Marxism and the challengers couldn’t tell the difference. Two Bill Martins – what are the odds?
Let’s add a dash of futility to the mix. I mean, how many people argue with a librarian and live to tell the tale?
But finally – and a little sadly – I sometimes wonder if the book challengers are trying to capture an unoccupied hill.
If a book isn’t read, it barely matters whether it’s challenged or not.
Right now, the average American reads for pleasure for about 16 minutes a day. That’s a number to dim the fire of any dragon. And it’s one that baffles me just a little.
It could be because of how busy we keep ourselves – except that many of us regularly devote a three-hour stretch of time to the week’s football game.
It could be because reading requires active concentration on an extended narrative – but if anything, Americans have proven they can passionately absorb and debate lengthy story arcs across the latest streaming TV series or movie franchise.
We could blame those darned kids and their need to see everything on a screen – but according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, it’s mostly seniors who have been spending more time watching TV, movies or streaming video, while younger age groups have either stayed about the same or fallen.
Whatever the reason, it’s time to turn the page.
I know I’m preaching to the choir here. (You ARE reading this, right?) But reading is possibly the greatest pastime we’ve ever created. With a moment’s effort, you’ve established a telepathic bond, experiencing the thoughts of an author who may be separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years. You can step inside the head of another person in a way that other media still struggle to recreate, experiencing walks of life vastly different from your own – or finding someone who’s walked your path, understands your struggles, and can reassure you that you’re not alone.
It might be a paperback close to hand. It might be an entire library on a tablet. Heck, my dad devoured bookcases worth of audiobooks on his daily drive to and from Golden for 40 years. The form doesn’t matter – the power is the same.
And if you’re one of the ones struggling to find even a few minutes of reading time– take heart. With a book, every little bit adds up. Sixteen minutes a day can often finish a book in a month, aside from the real doorstoppers. (And as we’ve seen with Harry Potter, the doorstoppers sometimes get finished faster.)
So yes, the situation could be better. But the treasures still await. The battles are still worth fighting. The power to read remains precious.
Precious enough for some people to try to limit it.
Don’t let anyone do that.