Of What Value is a Book?

A few weeks after I arrived to spend a year with a German family in Berlin, I celebrated my sixteenth birthday. They gave me two books: The Diary of Anne Frank and Cry, the Beloved Country. These two books informed my life as no other books have.

Until then I had no knowledge of the Holocaust, no idea that the Nazis had murdered six million Jews. As a Southern girl who rode the city bus to school, sat while Black women and men who’d worked all day stood at the back, I’d given no thought to American racism and knew absolutely nothing about South Africa. Both books were hard to read, not because of vocabulary or complex sentences, but because they burst my bubble of innocence. 

Did I feel guilt, as some parents and school boards fear their children will react? No. I felt empathy. I cried over a girl my age being killed because she was a Jew. I ached because Black characters I knew by name suffered under apartheid in South Africa. I began to wonder about the lives of Jewish kids in my school back home. I thought about tensions related to racial integration in American schools.

WHY do we read? I read to better understand my own experience. Anne Tyler’s and Margaret Atwood’s books about women come to mind. They show me that I’m not alone in how I feel. In Well-Read Black Girl, Black women writers tell what it meant to them as girls to discover the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

I also read to better understand unfamiliar people and cultures. To learn about Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, I have read authors such as Khaled Hosseini. To better understand the experiences of Black women I have read books by Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison.

What else are parents and school boards objecting to? Profanity. Have they listened to their children in conversation with friends? Violence and sex. Have these parents organized protests against film and television producers who “entertain” their children? Are they monitoring the video games their children play?

I see no easy solutions to the pervasiveness of sex and violence in our culture. But I trust teachers and librarians to steer our youth toward books that broaden their worldview.

And that foster an understanding of Other,

6 thoughts on “Of What Value is a Book?

  1. This is terrific — makes a point I don’t see others making. Do offer it as an opinion piece to a pub that will give it a larger audience — go beyond local. Figure out who you know with contacts at newspapers and magazines or people who write for them. And who do your friends know? Include all the credentials that you can muster — and you have many, from Korea, California, Presbyterians, etc.

    Unfortunately, I think there’s a rule that you don’t offer a piece to more than one publisher at a time. So tell them that you’re offering it only to them. Maybe even let them know that after a certain date you’ll offer it to someone else.

    Go for it, girl!

    BTW, Cry the Beloved Country deeply affected me, as well.

  2. Couldn’t agree with your wisdom re: reading books more! I’m still struggling to try and understand the inbred exclusion of people of color in the south (yes, I’m eastern Pennsylvania born, and raised). I was raised that all people are people to be cared for, understood and accepted. It is the major teaching my parents taught me and I continue to be grateful for the precious gift. My pile of books to read grows higher each month and I devour the sought for answers to so many ideologies I continue to question.

    Currently my heart is breaking with the parents of school age children determining what books the school libraries should have on their shelves and what subjects are to be taught in the classrooms.

    The longer I live on Earth Mother, the more confused I become with so many of the other humans I share planet earth with. I companion (volunteer) at Haywood Street, a missional church in Asheville, yesterday I sat in the sanctuary (I’m a Fresco docent) with several of our unhoused friends. Interesting, they quietly sat READING BOOKS! What’s right with this picture? The week before, one of our companions (who is also unhoused) stopped and chatted and share his life story, a beautiful and yet sat gift. Answers…I have none.

    • Roberta, I share your confusion, which easily escalates into anger–at least for me. Thanks for reminding us all of the importance of listening. Our hearts expand through hearing about another’s experience even more than through reading.

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