The Freedom to Read
In an age of book bans and censorship, it’s time we cultivated some moral imagination.
Last week, the British Book Awards honored Salman Rushdie with its prestigious Freedom to Publish Award. The prize, given only once before, honors writers, publishing houses and booksellers who, according to the Booksellers Association, “take a stand against intolerance, despite the ongoing threats they face.”
It is no metaphor to say that Rushdie embodies the consequences of those threats. As I watched this literary icon deliver his acceptance speech, my immediate thought was, “My God, how weary he must be.”
Perhaps it was simply a matter of competing commitments that he could not be present to receive the award. Still, his pre-recorded Zoom-quality video from a nondescript room was a stark reminder of how restricted Rushdie’s life has been since a fatwa calling for his death was issued in 1989 after the publication of his Satanic Verses. The darkened lens covering his right eye was a grim tribute to the vicious attack he survived last August, and a marker for what can happen if he lets his guard down. And there’s no doubt that there are inner scars as well, not the least of which stem from the violence his publisher and translators have also endured.
Rushdie’s speech, it needs to be said, is not likely to go down in history as a moment of great oratory. His remarks were brief and seemed somewhat off-the-cuff. But within them were nuggets of insight. And partisans on both sides were quick to bask in their glow. Conservatives delighted in his condemnation of progressive efforts to sanitize literary figures like Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. “The idea that James Bond could be made politically correct,” Rushdie quipped, “is almost comical.” Rushdie had harsh words for conservatives as well, particularly orchestrated calls to ban books in schools and public libraries. These efforts represent, in Rushdie’s view, an “extraordinary attack on libraries”—in fact, an attack on “the idea of libraries themselves.”
Rushdie said it somewhat breezily, so it was easy to miss another bit of hard-won wisdom: “The freedom to publish, of course, is also the freedom to read.” He listed it among other freedoms like the freedom to write and the freedom to say what you want to say without interference. All of this is important too, of course. But the freedom to read holds particular lessons for us that are often bypassed, even by those skilled at defending freedom of speech and expression.
At its most basic level, the freedom to read is the freedom to learn. This is obviously important for allowing us, as individuals, to expand what we know. We admire people who are well-read for a reason.
But it’s more than that. The freedom to read is a remarkable technology for social learning. As we transmit wisdom across space and through time, humanity as a whole becomes smarter. The accumulated wisdom has a compounding effect. Solutions once discovered do not need to be discovered again. Yesterday’s discoveries can be tweaked, combined with new insights, and applied to solve new problems. Because we have the freedom to read, we inherit the treasure trove of knowledge all prior generations of literate forebears accumulated.
Just as importantly, the freedom to read connects us to humanity, our own and others’. As Martha Nussbaum observes in her book Cultivating Humanity, when we read the stories of people from far-off places, times, and circumstances, we develop our moral imagination. We extend our capacity for compassion beyond what our direct experience might allow.
The alarming trend we’re seeing in organized book banning efforts is relevant here. Among the most frequent targets is George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, which reminds black gay readers that they too have dignity, that they too are worthy of love and compassion. (Dangerous stuff, that. Imagine if everybody started to think this way.) And every time the censors succeed in taking another copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye off the shelf, we’re robbed of the compassion it might have kindled in the reader’s heart, and the world is left a little colder.
The freedom to read goes straight to the heart of what it means to be a citizen in a free, liberal democratic society. In her latest book Read Dangerously, the Iranian-American author Azar Nafisi writes a series of letters to her deceased father Ahmad Nafisi, a reform-minded bureaucrat who briefly served as mayor of Tehran from 1962-1963 before being imprisoned on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. Nafisi tells her father that she wished he had read Satanic Verses:
You Baba jan, would like this book. It is not about comforting clichés but ideas that question and disturb and attempt to change the world—which makes not only writing but also reading it so dangerous. And this is what makes such a book so intolerable to tyrannical mindsets. In fact, this is what makes any great work of imagination a threat.
Reading sparks the kind of change that is difficult to reverse. Reading changes how we understand the world and our place within it. Once reading has done its disruptive work, systems of oppression and systems of liberation come into clearer view.
Once read, you can see it. Once seen, you can’t unsee it.
Emily Chamlee-Wright is the president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies.
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Islamist extremists motivated to kill Salman Rushdie for his "speech" critical of their religious beliefs are only more progressive in their trajectory than are those vested in woke ideology seeking to silence those that oppose their beliefs.
Erosion of our freedom to read what we want would be detrimental to the health of our society. What is detrimental to our society in the 21st century is the number of people who have only basic language and math skills. People with only basic literacy are destined to be pushed to the edges of society because they cannot read for understanding and growth much less enjoy the pleasure of reading.