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Let Reading Be Controversial!

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Isn't that kind of the point?

Last week, I interviewed a Holocaust survivor for a news story I was working on. She has a remarkable story, having gone through some unimaginable trials and having traveled all over the world. She was concerned by headlines out of Texas last week, where a school district in the DFW area pulled more than 40 books from library shelves for review - including The Bible and an Anne Frank's Diary graphic novel.

And I'm concerned too.

The Perspective of a Survivor

First, a little about Lea. The 83-year-old is originally from Hungary, which became occupied by Germany near the end of World War II. At the young age of five, she spent more than a year at a hard labor, concentration camp.

The camp was liberated by the Soviets, who would ultimately come to occupy Hungary a short time later. The Communist regime forbid anyone from leaving the country, but 16-year-old Lea would come to escape to Israel with her younger sister before eventually coming to America in the late 50s.

So yeah, she has a bit to say about banning books.

It was during the Nazi regime where books, considered to be subversive or un-German, were burned. More than 25,000 books were lost, ranging from Karl Marx on Communism to Helen Keller on social justice and women's rights.

And under the Communist regime, there was an extensive ban on books which could get readers, authors and publishers in serious trouble if they were caught with these reads. These works were mostly pro-Capitalist or pro-West, but Russia Beyond lists ten examples if you're interested.

Now, these are stark comparisons to make against a small, Texas school district. Not only will many of these books likely pass their review and return to the shelves, but these challenges are coming from parents who are only concerned that their children are accessing material that might be inappropriate for their age, or go against what's being taught at home.

But let's be honest, there is still a comparison to be made. And we get why that's a problem, right?

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

All in a Good Book

To no surprise to anyone, I really enjoy books. Long before I was an author or journalist, I was an avid reader. But I never would have fallen in love with writing if it weren't for the great storytellers before me, who opened my mind to how simple words can communicate complicated ideas, evoke powerful emotions and challenge even our oldest preconceived notions.

Reading doesn't just make us more educated. Science shows it also reduces stress and releases those "feel good" endorphins in our brain. Studies prove it also makes us more empathetic.

And that's the important bit. Whether its a sprawling fantasy or more grounded historical narrative, reading lets us imagine life in someone else's shoes. By picking up a book, we can experience entirely different worlds, and be exposed to viewpoints that we never would have otherwise.

When we talk about larger social issues like sexism, racism, and equity, we're talking about ignorance. A lack of understanding. But reading let's us imagine a life vastly different than our own, breeding compassion and critical thinking. These are direct counters to prejudice and hate.

So what's wrong with a little controversy?

Look, I get it. You wouldn't want your six-year-old reading Pet Sematary any more than you'd want them watching Pulp Fiction. I think we can find solutions for that. But to want to take away any piece of literature you personally disagree with? Not only is that bad for healthy discourse, its bad for a free and compassionate society.

If we're challenging books, it should be challenging ourselves to read them. Perhaps they will make us uncomfortable. Good. We don't have to agree with the author, or walk away from the book with the warm and fuzzy feelings of a Studio Ghibli film.

If its controversial, we can talk about why its controversial. But at the very least, we will walk away from the book with a greater understanding of others who think differently than us. We can use critical thinking to examine our own beliefs, and share the insights we gained with those in our circles.

On the extreme end, hopefully this means something like the Holocaust will never happen again. But more immediately, hopefully this means we'll be friendlier to our neighbors, more active in fighting for positive change in our communities, and of course, eager to read more books.

Books are written with love, trust me. And if you've ever had that feeling after finishing a book - and you know the feeling I'm talking about - then you know that love is infectious. So let's keep passing that love on to others, one book at a time.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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