For the bulk of my life I would have considered myself a pacifist. Having a heart that cares but going the long way round to avoid any kind of conflict. But that was before I fell in love with books. And I fell hard.
One of the things that struck me most as I nurtured this love through grade school and into college, was the notion I had had that to love books meant to love all books. I distinctly remember finding it the most painful thing in the world to trudge through Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Here was this great book, considered a classic, and I couldn’t stand it. I felt like I was betraying all of book-kind! Those were the elementary homeschooling years when my parents, as my teachers, were able–to my great astonishment–to take that book off my hands and place another in its stead. As the institutions of high school and college became less forgiving, it stuck with me that I was not expected to feel every book–or even most books–on such a deep and personal level.
But feeling and emotion are not quite credible legs to stand on when you tell people that you are going to be an English major. So what was I really going for? What use did I have for literature and writing?
Injustice. That is what sets fire in me and people with my Myers Briggs personality (INFJ) which I have found to be pretty enlightening in my self-awareness. And looking back, injustice–and its hopeful counterpart–is the global issue at hand when deep in the depths of a book. Here is what I mean. Reading a book means that someone has to have written a book. Writing a book, whether fictional or otherwise, is a way of materializing the voice of a person. And it’s no surprise that the bulk of the literature consumed in the university setting tends to lean towards authors and characters who have faced injustice and have now gained some justice by having a part of their voice be heard (that is, all people who are not white, male, straight, and having some kind of wealth). Reading literature throughout my years in institutional education, I’ve had the privilege of looking through a window that grows larger and larger, the classroom disappearing behind me and the world, large, green, beautiful, and desperately crying out to be heard seems to be staring right at me until I realize: I am not an observer of the world but a part of it. What is written was not lived out to be charted down to be read for mere emotion and pleasure alone. It is getting to know the world, getting to know humanity, without necessarily having to devote a lifetime to travel.
I remember loving Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit, not having to take a history class to learn about just one of the innumerable periods of oppression of America’s native peoples. We know the ugly truth behind the saying that “the victors write the history books.” But where am I to not only learn what that truth is but also what that means to that group of people without hearing it directly from them? I remember hating Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project for no other reason but that the injustice was sometimes too much. Pointing critical fingers at Chicago’s treatment of Jewish people, specifically, and shedding light on present day Bosnian people and the war that divided families.
We don’t have to want to reread books for them to affect us. That these books were written to get people thinking, while also being entertained through literature’s narratives, is the beginning of hope that something of a common good is being worked towards. Maybe no objective truth is being revealed. Maybe readers cannot come away with knowledge that they can measure. But there are reasons why books are banned. Or burned. Books can start social revolutions, pushing for justice and a platform of visibility within this enormous global human experience. And through this kind of reading, the pacifist must be gone.