Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Books and their readers

Which way does causation flow - do books make the reader or does the reader make the book?

I think most of us instinctively feel that a book is a causative event. We can remember how specific books affected us at some critical point in our lives or changed how we thought of something. And I think that is true - specific books can be transformative for individuals at specific times under particular circumstances.

But the lurking book-banner siezes on this position to then justify banning or discouraging certain books from being read because they are deemed to be pejorative or insensitive to some group based on race or religion or ethnicity or class or some other attribute. The guise is always partly about protecting feelings and partly about how it might influence a reader. These latent totalitarians feel justified in turning the proposition that books are important and transformative into the proposition that books are dangerous.

One list serv to which I belong, and which is heavily populated by librarians and academicians, routinely (and to me astonishingly) has a running spat about which books ought to be sanctioned and they usually include long time favorites that most reading Americans have at one time enjoyed such as Little House on the Prairie, Caddie Woodlawn, and of course that long reviled classic, Little Black Sambo featuring a clever, self-reliant and resilient Indian boy from the sub-continent.

I think what gets lost is that it is the particularity of the experience that makes the difference. Not all books affect all people in anything remotely the same way. The reader does bring as much to the table as the author. The context in which a book is read and the contribution of the reader is a counterforce to whatever the author has penned. What is nominally judged pejorative by some narrow segment of academia is properly seen by most people as a non-issue. Terms once used that are no longer appropriate are glossed over. Prejudices of former years can be discussed and set in context. The simple act of reading does not irredeemably stain a young mind as seems to be the implication by the banners.

What brings this to mind is the recent publication of Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W. Ryback. Peter Lewis reviewed the book in the July issue of the UK's Oldie magazine. Hitler was a bibliophile with an extensive personal library, some portion of which survived the war. Ryback has gone back to see what Hitler read and observed his personal marginalia in the books to try and capture some of his thinking. Lewis has a couple of interesting observations on Hitler the reader.

What is interesting is the breadth of his reading. He listed Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels and Uncle Tom's Cabin as great classics of literature, and prized Shakespeare above Goethe and Schiller. . . .

Does this study of his favorites help us understand Hitler better? Perhaps as much as a session with Parsifal or Gotterdammerung. You may conclude that Hitler read mainly to confirm his prejudices.

As so often happens, the observer sees what they want to see. There is prejudice and stereotype of some nature and to some degree in any one of these books but it is always some minor element to the larger themes and message. These elements are only important to the degree that you make them important. It is the reader that creates the context and the interpretation. It is the reader that is potentially dangerous and not the book.

Lewis has a further comment which I find interesting.

But Ryback's whole picture makes him (Hitler) seem more like a human being than the usual monster. You could have talked books with Hitler. And the nicely-observed snapshots of his private life in which books played so big a part make this biblio-biography far more interesting than it looked when I picked it up.

I think this is important. As the gulf of time widens between ourselves and the events of World War II, there seems to be a greater and greater tendency to dismiss Hitler as a phenomenon of evil, something unique and apart from us. A freak of nature. I think this is a mistake. The degree to which we distance ourselves from Hitler and his actions, the more we relieve ourselves of the obligation of eternal vigilance against totalitarians in whatever guise. Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan tell us that the spirit of Hitler lives today, that we all, as human beings, and under the right circumstances, have the capacity of great evil and that it remains our obligation to master our own natures and to stand alert to evil wherever it might manifest itself. Hitler was a human being, not some caricature. He was one of us, a book reader. We may not like it but it should keep us alert.

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