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.