As my parents were walking down a street in China, a man snuck up next to my mother and asked if they had a Bible.
In accented English, he explained that some Americans brought Bibles to give away in this communist country. My parents were pig farmers from Illinois who, over the years, visited their colleagues in China, Ukraine, Poland and Denmark to exchange ideas.
When Mom told this story more than 30 years ago, I was so grateful to live in a country where the government didn’t dictate what people could read.
I’m not sure I still live in a place like this.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where both left and right try to determine what others can read.
I’m stubborn enough that when someone tells me not to read something, it’s the first thing I add to my reading list. This week is banned book week.
Years ago a Protestant taunted me for my curiosity about the Apocrypha, the four books of the Bible recognized by the Catholic Church but not by most Protestant denominations.
My answer was to read it. It helped me understand differences between Catholic and Protestant teachings. It adds greater context to the 400 years before Jesus was born, and his prose is beautiful.
Today, race is often at the heart of the book ban debate. I recently interviewed Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey and he said critical race theory should not be taught in schools.
Proponents of critical race theory maintain that race is a social construct and that racism is not only the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. Conservative critics counter that the basis of the theory is that the United States is inherently racist and that this causes students to feel guilty about past actions by white people.
How about letting the children read the works and decide for themselves?
Critics of Critical Race Theory often point to the “1619 Project,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine endeavor that explores the legacy of 400 years of slavery in what is now the United States.
For Christmas last year, my wife gave me a copy of the 1619 Project. It was fascinating reading. I agreed with some conclusions in the book. I don’t have others. But that’s okay. When you read something, it should break thinking, not holding.
I also make a point of reading authors I know I won’t agree with. Sometimes I read material that I know I will find repulsive.
For example, in 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, I walked into a bookstore in Davenport, Iowa, and asked if they had a copy of the Turner Diaries, a racist tome said to have inspired the bombers.
The elderly woman who owned the shop narrowed her eyes and growled, “We don’t sell that here. Do you want to bomb something?”
no But I wanted to understand what motivated the hate in the terrorists. When I finally received a copy, I found the ideas it contained disgusting. But it has given me insight into the distorted reasoning behind the white nationalist movement.
One of my favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird. When I read the novel as a teenager, I was fascinated by the story of a lawyer taking a stand against a racist legal system in the South. I loved the book so much that when we were expecting our second daughter, I wanted to name her Scout, after the book’s protagonist. (My wife dismissed the idea.)
Today there is a push to ban the book in schools. Some people dislike it because it uses a racial epithet in the context of Southern culture at the time. Others say it’s misogynistic because it involves a false rape allegation. Still others don’t like a white man being cast as a hero trying to save a black man.
All of these critiques seem to make good subject for discussion in a classroom. Instead, some school administrators ban its use.
So what am I reading during Banned Books Week? Well, Diary of a Misfit is an excellent non-fiction book. It’s about a lesbian journalist who returns to rural Louisiana, where she grew up, to make a documentary about a transgender man her grandmother knew in the 1940s.
I’m not done with it yet, but so far it’s a brilliant read.
I’m also reading Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller, an evangelical pastor, which talks about how we can find spiritual meaning in our work. I enjoy discussing this with others early Wednesday mornings.
Reading creates bridges of understanding between different groups. What could be a better goal in our divided society?
• Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be contacted at: [email protected].