I bought a new bookcase recently and over the weekend I finally had time to sit down and put it together. This endeavor ended up taking up most of my time on Saturday and part of Sunday as well – not because the bookcase was difficult to assemble (it wasn’t, minus the legs) but because, as it usually happens for any task involving books, I tend to spend more time flipping through the pages than doing anything else.
Undoubtedly, the process of removing the books from the old shelf, which was then placed in another room to hold Following books, and putting my favorites back on the newly built shelf in my bedroom took longer than everything else combined.
Right now my new library is a little less than half full and waiting for the boxes of books I left in Duluth when I moved to Worthington. I brought my absolute favorites with me – the books I couldn’t bear to leave behind. Some of them are not pleasant books. Some of these books are downright painful to read for their content, and I am unable – still, after countless re-readings – to skim through them without crying.
I’ve always been an avid reader, because I’ve always been first and foremost a writer. What can I say, I love a good story and there’s no better way to improve your writing than by reading the work of people who are better than you. So I read. I consume stories wholeheartedly, even ones that don’t end well. Even those who are difficult. I read books that make me sad, uncomfortable, angry, and oftentimes I feel like those particular books not only made me a better writer, but a better person, because that I come out of it more empathetic, more understanding than I was before, having gained a perspective that I might not have considered.
There is an ongoing conversation in America that has recently sparked new interest, about books, schools and children. A Tenessee school board voted unanimously last month to ban “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust on the grounds that it contained inappropriate language and imagery for students, and the ensuing debate about it continued to make headlines for the last several weeks.
I could say many things about this. I could talk about the importance of understanding history so as not to repeat it. I could say that I think censorship in schools is a dangerous and slippery slope that often leads to the limitation or erasure of any perspective considered “other” by the masses at large. I might say that the purpose of school is not to learn, to be challenged, to gain understanding that you did not have before? And I could tell you that as someone who has been out of school for less than a decade, who still vividly remembers the discussions in the classrooms where we read literature that made us feel uncomfortable, I am grateful to my teachers who created these assignments.
The hardest book I’ve ever read was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and I did it because one of my teachers told me it was a book everyone should read at least once, not despite its difficulty but because this side. She was right, and while it’s not a book I want to read again, it left an impact on me that I doubt I’ll ever forget – and that’s not a bad thing. I had the chance to read it with classmates and a teacher who wanted us to understand the importance of what we were reading. The horror, the heartache, the unpleasant nature of the content weren’t things we shy away from in the discussion, which made it more bearable than if I had read it alone.
I understand wanting to protect children from the horrors of the world, but as someone who wasn’t part of this group for so long, I think denying them the opportunity to learn and share their thoughts in a safe space is a plus poor service.
Children are intelligent creatures and they are not blind to the world around them. Give them the tools to understand the stories, the themes, the tactics used – how to identify an unreliable narrator, how to choose nuances and give context – and they can use those skills in the real world.
Give them readings that challenge them, make them feel uncomfortable, make them think, and they will not only have a better understanding of the world, but also of their place in it.