World Book Day celebrates reading as a way of tackling poverty. Launched by the United Nations in 1995, it values the personal and cultural development that literacy brings.
In the UK, World Book Day is on the first Thursday in March. Schools distribute millions of £1 book tokens to children. Staff and students dress up as characters from novels. The Day honours reading as fun and open to everyone. Indeed, it sees reading as a way to a better life. For the UK’s Reading Agency, it improves people’s wellbeing and reduces feelings of loneliness. Reading transforms lives.
So, World Book Day has a vision for the personal and social benefits that engaging with words and ideas can give. Literacy is a huge plus, especially for the poor. And yet what people read matters too.
Good and Bad Books?
An Italian proverb claims there’s no worse robber than a bad book. Some books don’t ring true, leaving readers with a sense of disappointment. Some are great for easing stress but don’t make for a healthy diet. Others are ethically flawed, including those that stir up hatred of the self or others. This is Why I Hate You, for example, is about a teenager who pities himself and despises everyone he knows. This is not wisdom.
As a child, I enjoyed the books of Enid Blyton (1897-1968), her Famous Five series in particular. I loved her stories of youthful adventure and courage but lost interest when the action slowed into conversation during picnics. Blyton’s novels were hugely popular, though by the Sixties some libraries were banning them. Her writing was said to be ‘second rate’, and she was criticised for sexist and racist allusions.
Back then I was a naïve reader. I had no consciousness of race, and Blyton’s ideas on the place of women in society were in line with the conservative views of my parents. Yet there were values in her books that I admired: freedom to explore, loyalty between friends, and siding with what’s fair and right. Although I lacked self-confidence, that was the kind of person I wanted to be.
Books, like authors and readers, are not perfect. Yet democratic societies value freedom of expression within limits necessary for protecting the rights of others. Encouraging students to read some texts rather than others is sensible. Better still to develop our personal ability to discern what’s wise and good.
If that sounds a little heavy, World Book Day emphasises the importance of reading for pleasure. Novels especially can transport us to another world. They invite us to engage with people who have different attitudes and experiences to our own. Through entering this world where we face no negative consequences from the actions of its characters, we can relax and enjoy. Along the way we learn about human life and nature, including our own. And if a book inspires us to be a kinder person or to get involved in action to improve society, that’s a bonus.
Books as Journeys
Many books are about journeys. In Homer’s Odyssey, a hero of the Trojan war meets many challenges as he travels home to the family he loves. In a murder mystery, a detective pieces together clues on a journey to justice and resolution. Such stories echo our feeling of voyaging through life. It’s like being on an invisible path where we encounter difficulties, make mistakes and learn as we go. Thus, books about movement towards a goal symbolise the need for wisdom. As we read, we gain from the wisdom and folly within a story that vaguely reflects our own.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Frodo Baggins is a peace-loving hobbit who has little interest in life beyond his village. Soon he finds himself on a dangerous quest to destroy a magical ring that holds the potential for great evil. He feels inadequate, but grows in courage and strength of purpose through hard and refreshing times.
Once the Lord of the Rings has been defeated, Frodo returns home. He discovers that the Shire he loves has been corrupted by greed and cruelty. However, his journey has given him the wisdom he needs to set things right without resorting to revenge. Thus, Frodo’s odyssey was more than physical. It involved inner struggles through which he changed for the better.
A Bronze Age Story
Some Bible stories are suggestive of several kinds of journey that combine with each other. Abraham, for example, hears God’s call to make a fresh start. God speaks to him in friendship and promises that his descendants will be a blessing to humanity. So, Abraham leaves the security of his home city and travels hundreds of miles with his extended family.
Throughout his geographical wanderings, God is there for Abraham. Yet Abraham often fails to see beyond his present difficulties. He then acts out of anxiety, bringing pain to himself and others. As he struggles to view the future with hope, he’s on a path to wisdom but sometimes backtracks by being cunning. Abraham’s also on a spiritual journey via experiences that encourage him to trust God and his promise, though often he doesn’t. And God is patient with him. God is willing to work with the ups and downs of Abraham’s faith and goodness. The implication is that God is open to being as gracious with us.
Reading does not automatically give us an author’s wisdom. One step towards it becoming ours is learning to see the world from other points of view. This improves our appreciation of human nature, making us more tolerant of people who are different from us. It also increases our self-understanding.
Certainly, we need to think about what we read and be discerning in what we take from it. Yet engaging imaginatively with ideas and people matters too. As we empathise with characters in stories, we see new possibilities for ourselves and internalise what we believe to be wise. Thus motivated, we pursue the good we’ve gained from reading. And so, aspects of an author’s wisdom merge with our everyday living and become truly ours.
To find out more about me please click here.