Freedom to Read, all the time

FreedomLet’s face it: the recent events concerning the satirical French newsmagazine Charlie Hebdo have raised any number of inarguably troubling issues. I don’t feel myself knowledgeable enough to comment at any great length on the attack itself, the motivations of the attackers, the history of overt racism against Muslims (in France and elsewhere, including my beloved Canada), or the quality and/or history of the publication itself.

But being an author who’s had a small degree of complaints about his own work—although nothing that’s gone to a challenge or full-out ban, more’s the pity: I could really use the publicity (and sales)—issues concerning the right to free speech and expression always hit close to home. Combine that with my solemn pledge as a librarian to always promote the free exchange of information and you get one uneasy camper.

The right to free speech and freedom of expression is a cherished and invaluable privilege, one that far too many people have no access to. Despite the hypocritical posturing of world leaders who condemn such attacks while at the same time suppressing speech they feel detrimental to their own regimes (including, yet again, my beloved Canada), such freedom is integral to a vibrant and cohesive society, no matter how off-putting some may find certain forms of expression.

The_Good_Man_Jesus_and_the_Scoundrel_Christ_coverI think the great British author Philip Pullman put it best when asked about the perceived offensiveness of his novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:

“It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That’s all I have to say on that subject.” [italics mine]

On a related note, the last week in February is Freedom to Read Week up here in my snowblind utopia, “an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” For those unfamiliar with Canadian traditions, Freedom to Read Week is a holiday not unlike Christmas, except A) no one gets a day off, and B) likely as not many Christians of the extreme variety will be unhappy.

Although they’re unhappy by nature anyway, so maybe that doesn’t change.

I cannot conceive of a life without the freedom to read whatever and wherever I like. Reading equals learning. Reading is education. There is compelling evidence that the more literature you read, the more intelligent (and nicer) you’ll likely be.

HawthorneQuote_finalWords are important. Words destroy barriers. Ideas are stronger than tyrants. Reading leads to progress. The more you read, the more you understand. And yes, this includes Fifty Shades of Grey. I, for one, learned how not to tell a story. And three new uses for handcuffs.

And if you’re unconvinced of the merits of this, remember that some people actually kill children to stop them learning. Remember that some people become apoplectic when someone points out that the moon is not a magical lightbulb in the sky.

Such people are terrified of ideas. At times, I despair that perhaps Douglas Adams was right, that our planet is simply “an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

So, this in mind, I’d like to use my position as arbiter of all things good and noble (on this blog, anyway) to broaden the week to a full month. Furthermore, I’ve asked a number of people I know in the publishing industry to submit their own thoughts on the subject, be they personal anecdotes, philosophical musings, or simply a shout-out to a favourite book that, through no fault of its own, has been the target of library/legal challenges. I hope to have at least one entry a day for the entire month, perhaps more.


Above: the visual definition of badass.

If you find an entry pleasing, or maddening, or insulting, or infuriating, please share the post via the usual social media suspects. Tweet them using the hashtag #freedomtoread. Praise them for their insight, or call them out for their blasphemy.

Let’s get people talking.

Ooh, better yet: let’s get people reading. Check out a banned/challenged book for yourself, see what the fuss is about.

And be sure to read it in public, so that everyone knows what a bad-ass you are.