It’s hard to censor what you don’t even have

Free­dom to Read Week, Feb. 22–28, 2015

Entry #9: best­selling author Ter­ry Fal­lis on the inescapable absence of books in some people’s lives.

Free­dom to Read Week is about more than intel­lec­tu­al free­dom

The last week in Feb­ru­ary is Free­dom to Read Week. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, this is all about pro­mot­ing intel­lec­tu­al free­dom, oppos­ing cen­sor­ship, and ensur­ing our con­tin­ued access to books that fre­quent­ly run afoul of author­i­ties who like to decide what we can and can­not read. These are impor­tant and laud­able goals. Over the course of the week, you will no doubt read many pow­er­ful and pas­sion­ate posts in defence of our “free­dom to read.” I sus­pect I will find favour with them all. So I thought I’d take a slight­ly dif­fer­ent slant on what “free­dom to read” might mean.

To me, “free­dom to read” can be inter­pret­ed at an even more basic lev­el. I have always believed that read­ing, sto­ry­telling, and access to books, are cen­tral to a nation’s social and eco­nom­ic well­be­ing. It is hard to imag­ine pros­per­i­ty with­out read­ing. While lit­er­a­cy lev­els can and must still be raised in Cana­da, par­tic­u­lar­ly among our abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples, the sit­u­a­tion is even more dire in devel­op­ing coun­tries. Even when rel­a­tive­ly well-devel­oped edu­ca­tion sys­tems mean that most chil­dren actu­al­ly do learn to read, access to books, the key to real­iz­ing the full glo­ry of read­ing, con­tin­ues to be a chal­lenge in the third world.

Imag­ine grow­ing up in a rur­al vil­lage in, say, India, where pover­ty seems to be passed from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. They don’t have the well-devel­oped library sys­tem that we so often take for grant­ed here in Cana­da. There is no ready access to books. When try­ing to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table become a family’s sin­gu­lar focus, being able to lose one­self in a great sto­ry seems like a low­er pri­or­i­ty. In the grand scheme of things, shel­ter, food, cloth­ing, and health should be high­er on the pri­or­i­ty list, but read­ing should fol­low close­ly there­after.

Read­ing can be an endur­ing source of inspi­ra­tion, of joy, of escape. It can inflict per­spec­tive. It can moti­vate. It can nour­ish dreams, and some­times even save a young mind. But only if there are books.

Vicki’s Library

The Nachiket Children’s Lit­er­a­cy Foun­da­tion rais­es mon­ey to sup­port a net­work of free children’s libraries in rur­al India where schools are ill-equipped and access to books is lim­it­ed. When a beloved mem­ber of our book club passed away near­ly four years ago, we hon­oured her by fund­ing this small children’s library in Dhaberi, a remote vil­lage in Cen­tral India.

For the first time chil­dren had access to over 500 books and a part-time librar­i­an to nur­ture a love for read­ing. The library thrives today giv­ing many chil­dren the “free­dom to read.”

As we stop this week to con­sid­er the full breadth of the phrase “Free­dom to Read,” by all means lament the books that are banned, and rail against those who would lim­it our intel­lec­tu­al free­dom. I’ll be there with you. But spare a thought also for those whose “free­dom to read” is cur­tailed not by the cen­sor, but by pover­ty and the inescapable absence of books in their lives. They also deserve the “free­dom to read.”

Ter­ry Fal­lis is the author of four nation­al best­sellers. His debut nov­el, The Best Laid Plans, won the 2008 Stephen Lea­cock Medal for Humour and was crowned the 2011 win­ner of CBC Cana­da Reads as the “essen­tial Cana­di­an nov­el of the decade.“ In 2014, CBC adapt­ed it into a six-part tele­vi­sion minis­eries, and is also in devel­op­ment as a stage musi­cal by Touch­stone The­atre in Van­cou­ver. The High Road was pub­lished in 2010 and was a final­ist for the 2011 Stephen Lea­cock Medal for Humour. Terry’s third nov­el, Up and Down, released in 2012., debuted on the Globe and Mail best­sellers list, was a final­ist for the 2013 Lea­cock Medal, and won the 2013 Ontario Library Asso­ci­a­tion Ever­green Award. Terry’s fourth nov­el, No Rela­tion, hit book­stores in 2014, and opened on the Globe and Mail best­sellers list. Terry’s fifth nov­el, Poles Apart, will be pub­lished in Octo­ber 2015.