Sunday Reflections: The Myth of the Book as Sacred Object
I have and will continue to fight hard to make sure that my child with dyslexia has the ability to read and to read well. The ability to read is liberation. Without the ability to read, you can’t sign a contract in confidence or get hired by an employer and stand up for yourself.
We forget, I think, that when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Thesis on the church door he was taking power away from the Catholic church and giving it to the people; the power to read the Bible on their own and to determine their own course of spiritual well being. It changed everything about the world by making faith and spiritual practice more accessible.
When white people sought complete dominance and oppression of others, they did so by actively criminalizing reading. Literacy was an actual crime in early America, and to teach a slave to read was a criminal activity. Because even then we knew that literacy is liberation, well, it’s a step towards it. And while it’s true that systems of racism and oppression still exist today, it is also true that literacy is an important part in the ongoing fight against it.
The power of words and thought are so fierce that we find ourselves constantly fighting against misinformation and outright propoganda. All of human history is filled with outright blatant lies and propoaganda because we understand that words have power.
So havin’t just stated that literacy is liberation, and a vital component of democracy, you may perhaps think it is odd that I titled this post The Myth of the Book as a Sacred Object. I love books. If the family lore is true, I taught myself to read at the tender age of 4 and just kept reading. I visited libraries as a young child and began working one at the age of 20. At the age of 48, I have now worked 28 years dedicated to helping to make sure that people have access to books. I believe in the power and importance of books.
I believe that books are magic. There is a power in a story. Words have meaning and they matter. They can also be deadly and dangerous. Public libraries are great and important parts of democracy. They are equalizers. They are gate crashers. They literally can transform the entire course of human history.
But it’s not really the books that do it, it’s the words inside them that do. The book is just a tool. It conveys thought, meaning, experiences, ideas, history and hope. Before there was the written word and the public library, there were oral traditions and ancient art. Humans have always been about stories, the means of delivery, however, is always changing. Words are powerful, the ability to communicate, in whatever form, is transformative, but books are not in and of themselves sacred objects. Not even to me, a book lover.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently following the controversy surrounding the Dr. Seuss books. Dr. Seuss (not his real name), wrote a ton of books and even after his deaths books bearing that name continue to be printed by the Dr. Seuss foundation. Dr. Seuss himself was racist, you can see the truth of this in some of the political cartoons he wrote, which I won’t be sharing here because they were really, really racist. And some of that racism appears in some of his books. Which is why the Dr. Seuss foundation chose to stop publishing 6 of the titles. You’ve probably heard about this, some people have been really upset about it.
I’ve thought about this a lot for a lot of reasons. But I also thought about this because some of the images in particular were racist about Asian people. Soon after foundation announced that they would no longer publish these books because of their racist depictions, a man went on a killing spree in Atlanta and murdered 8 people, many of whom were Asian American. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that Dr. Seuss or these books were directly responsible for this event, though they certainly were one part of many that has fueled decades of harmful stereotypes about Asian people.
As I thought about these two events I thought about how I was thankful that this private entity had done this self-examination and made this decision to stop publishing these titles that promtoed harmful stereotypes because it is a step in the right direction for our world in general, but more specifically for Asian American people who have been facing increased racism and violence in the past year. It’s just a tiny step, and it probably won’t make much of a difference at all, but each tiny step in the right direction helps. Every step that we, as a people, make towards inclusion and equity is a step in the right direction.
But I’ve also thought a lot about the reaction to the Dr. Seuss foundation making this announcement. Suddenly, everyone cared very much about these books, some of which I bet people didn’t even realize had ever been published. Suddenly, these books becamse sacred, more sacred even then the ideas that they expoused or the people that they would hurt. As if the book itself was a sacred object.
The reality is, books go out of print every day. There are books that I bought for my library just last year that I couldn’t buy a replacement copy of today because they had a first printing and then . . . they’re just done. Part one of a series will be published and part two will never be published because part one didn’t sell enough copies. The reality is that every day decisions are being made that means you can no longer buy a book.
Books that are announced for publication never get published.
Books that are published never get reprinted.
Books fall out of backpacks and into puddles and they get weeded out of library collections and no replacement is bought.
Libraries weed. We have to if you want to read the newest books then we need to have shelf space for them.
The reality is: you can not today walk into your local library and check out any and every book that has ever been published in all of human history. That’s just not feasible. Publishers, libraries, book stores, etc. make decisions every day about what’s available. Sometimes they are made for financial reasons. Sometimes they are made for spatial reasons. Sometimes they are made because the information is no longer relevant (country borders change, for example) or because it is no longer accurate. So why can’t those decisions be made because we have grown as a human race and have come to realize that those words, those depictions, are genuinely harmful to another human?
And even if you argue that a library can’t, the publisher – a free market capitalist entity – surely can. And we should not be surprised or disgusted by this. It is, in fact, how a free market economy is designed to work.
Many people acted as if a book, once published, is a sacred object that must always exist and that’s just not factually true. It never has been. It never will be. The Earth does not contain enough space to have an infinite number of books available. But also, books in and of themselves are not sacred objects. I would argue that what they do for society is. They are a tool of communication. They are a way to sit and process who we were, who were are, who we hope to be, who we can become. They are a means of conveying our thoughts and ideas and stories and truths . . . but at the end of the day, they are still only a tool.
I like as much as the next person to hold a book in my hand. I have a small collection of Winnie the Pooh books because that little bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood have always delighted me. But at the end of the day it is the stories and the characters and the illustrations and the writing style that delight me and that I hold so dear, not the physical book itself. In fact, if you work in a library long enough and see enough books that have passed through the hands of thousands of people or have set on a shelf for years unused or have been placed in a book drop after sitting in the corner of a house that leaked, you will learn quickly that there books can be as much menace as magic. If you have ever cracked the spine of a book to see it infested with cockroaches you will know that books are not always wondrous, magical things.
This idea that a book is somehow a sacred object ocassionally comes up when we talk about weeding and book donations as well. Recenlty someone tweeted because they had cleaned out their book shelves and offered to donate those books to their local library and they were disgusted that a librarian had suggested that they recycle the books. But sometimes, that is in fact that correct answer. Those old sets of encyclopedias that you have where the literal names and borders of countries have changed, they should be recycled. Those medical textbooks from when you were in nursing school ten years ago, those should also be recycled. Just rip the covers off and put the guts in your paper pulping bin. What we know about the world changes and some information can actually be outright deadly.
This idea that a library should be grateful for your personal discards because books are sacred shows that people don’t understand what goes into creating a good library collection. We run reports to find gaps and holes and make sure we have a wide variety of books that cover a wide variety of subjects. Our shelf space is limited and if we fill it with every person’s favorite books when they clean out their personal collections, well then we wouldn’t have the shelf space to create and maintain a comprehensive collection for a large public population. We don’t reject personal donations out of spite, but out of due diligence and careful consideration. It’s because we want to build the best library collections possible.
That is also why we weed. Weeding is the process of removing a book out of a collection and discarding it. The titles that libraries weed are often recycled in some way, whether they be donated to organizations that sell them, like local Friends groups that then use the money to support library programming, or sometimes they are – gasp – literally recycled. A book like everything else on the planet has a life cycle and it is not infinite.
As a librarian, I used to be a big proponent of the book as sacred object campaign. I think a part of it was job security; I want libraries to stay relevant and open for obvious reasons. But I have come to understand that libraries are more than just books and there is more than one way to access information, even stories. And libraries and librarians have always and will always be in the business of connecting people with information, whatever tool is used to convey that information. But I have grown and moved past this ideas that book in and of themselves are sacred objects. What they do for our world and the words within their pages, yes. Always. But the book themselves . . . they are just a tool.
Reading is liberation. Books are just a tool. But words . . . they can transform hearts and minds, for good or ill. I will not fight for a single book, but I will fight tooth and nail for the equity and access that comes from a public library.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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