Books that change lives and Banned Books Week.

Last night my book club discussed Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, and it was one of those discussions that transcended the book. We talked about dogmatism and redemption and grace. I will admit, I have not yet finished Sacred Hunger (a book about the middle passage is not exactly light reading that I can pick up at any moment, unfortunately), though I have enjoyed what I have read so far. But now, after the discussion, I can’t wait to finish it.

This is a passage that was quoted last night, one that I haven’t gotten to yet.

Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way . . . Was it always wrong then to believe that the experience of suffering would soften the heart? Those who were fond of declaring that they understood human nature would no doubt conclude so. But as the light strengthened slowly, enabling him to make out the bare furnishings of his cabin, it came to [Matthew] Paris that he did not want to be numbered among these knowing ones, that such understanding was worse than error, worse than hope endlessly defeated. If that is what it means to be wise, I choose folly, he told himself, and slept again and woke to daylight and a sweat of pain and the sign of Sullivan’s face above him.

My Favorite English Professor declared that this was a book that could change your life, if you would let it. (And with passages like that, it’s easy to see why.) I have been thinking a little bit lately about my favorite books, and about how long it’s been since I read a book that I would add to my favorites list. And then today I ran across an article about that very thing.

Let me put it another way: When was the last time a book changed your life? I don’t mean offered you new insights or ideas or moved you–I mean profoundly changed the way you see the world or shaped the kind of person you are? If you’re like me, it’s been longer than you’d like to admit.

The article goes on to say:

It’s not that children’s books are pure entertainment, innocent of any didactic goal–what grownups enviously call “Reading for Fun.” On the contrary, the reading we do as children may be more serious than any reading we’ll ever do again. Books for children and young people are unashamedly prescriptive: They’re written, at least in part, to teach us what the world is like, how people are, and how we should behave–as my colleague Megan Kelso (The Squirrel Mother) puts it, “How to be a human being.”

There is a level of moral instruction in these books underneath the incidentals of plot, character, and setting that we’re constantly absorbing: How would a decent person act in this situation? What would a bad person do? What’s the right thing to say to a friend when something terrible happens? The Lord of the Rings books are no more concerned with martial virtues such as loyalty and courage than they are with elaborate codes of courtesy and honorable conduct. Bridge to Terebithia makes this function of literature explicit when Leslie gives Jess The Chronicles of Narnia to read so that he can learn how a prince should behave.

A lot of you are probably thinking about Kathleen Kelly: “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” The older I get (I am not saying I’m old, but the older I get) the more I agree with that. And it’s part of why I take my job so seriously.

Speaking of which! Next week is Banned Books Week. There are a lot of things that seem oh so very broken in our country right now. Next week, celebrate one of the things that we can be proud of: intellectual freedom. Read a Harry Potter book, some Judy Blume, or some Steinbeck. Heck, you can even read Gossip Girl (though I don’t actually recommend it). Read something that has been considered so offensive that someone asked for it to be taken off bookstore and library shelves. You can even read something that you find offensive! But please celebrate our freedom to read, to let these books change our lives.

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