Every year around New Year’s, Ernest Hemingway gave away some of his books. He did this to prove to himself that he owned these books and they did not own him.
My problem with books is a bit different. A few years ago, my wife walked into my church office and said, “What are you going to do with all your books after you retire? You know you have 3,000 or more, and we only have room at home for some of them.” .
I wondered: which books should I keep and which should I give away? But this led to a complicated question. Should I just keep the books I’ve read, written, and loved, books that are like old friends that you can pick up right where you left off years later? Or should I also keep books that I fully intend to read but never crack open, strangers eager to chat?
Like most people who value books, I have a bit of guilt about the illiterate. You wouldn’t have a car if you never drove it, a bike if you never rode it, a gift card if you never used it. Why would anyone keep books you’ve never read?
Recently, a friend shared an article with me that exonerated me of many sins. An article published in the journal Psychology suggests that unread books are a good thing, because they remind us of things we don’t know. In other words, unread books show a certain modesty or humility, suggesting that there is still much to learn, so much that I don’t know.
One area I know very little about is the recent craze for book bans. Across the country, people are asking school boards to ban certain books from classrooms and libraries. A quick internet search shows that school boards banned about 1,600 books during the 2021-2022 school year. The bans affected 138 school districts in 32 states. According to the article, Florida and Texas lead the nation in banning the book.
How should I respond? Like some people, I can align myself with political and social conservatives and insist on banning these books. On the other hand, I can join the forces of progressives and object to the banning of all books as a violation of freedom of speech. Yet I wonder: How many of these people, conservative and progressive, have actually read the 1,600 books they either protest or defend? I am wary of people (myself included) who believe that we already have all the knowledge we need. Maybe that’s why most of us only like news that reinforces what we already believe. We rarely expose ourselves to news and ideas that challenge our values and push us outside of our comfort zone.
My New Year’s resolution is to read some of these forbidden books for myself. Perhaps individuals and book club members will make similar decisions. Perhaps we’ll learn what we don’t know about the people and controversial subjects of these banned books, allowing us to form our own opinions rather than succumb to partisan bias.
The one book I know and love more than any other is the Bible. For all its good verses, the Bible also contains “R-rated” stories about murder, ego, abuse, rape, genocide, sexual temptation, and a gruesome death by crucifixion. Surprisingly, no one is trying to ban the Bible from school libraries. why? Because as a society we have learned to value the good that the Bible is afraid of its disturbing parts. If only we could be as wonderfully open-minded about other books as we are about the Bible.
Rev. Albert G. Butzer III Lives in Norfolk. Before retiring, he served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach.