There is an election going on in this country and the results will have a significant impact on your library, your community, and you. I’m not talking about Congressional races or your local school board (though those are important and please vote!). The election that matters to us right now is the one that is being held via PBS and its Great American Read.
I suspect that this program is not news to you. Its intent is to have a national discussion on the value and power of reading and to elect the book that matters most to us. “Us” being the United States. Several aspects of this program have fascinated me, especially the range of titles selected for inclusion. The list is based on the results of a national survey and not all titles were by American authors. The authors and the stories themselves represent a wide-range of races, ethnic groups, and nationalities. Children’s classics to young adult titles to adult titles are represented. Classics and contemporary best-sellers are also on this list, as well as many “banned” books.
The same variety existing among the titles featured on the Great American Read is reflected in the readers participating in the program. Pick a demographic group and you are likely to find it represented, crossing racial, regional, ethnic, class, and generational lines. What unifies these individuals is their unflagging belief in and advocacy for the power of reading and the changes books have enabled them to make. Whether the Harry Potter series or Grapes of Wrath, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Outsiders, each of the readers articulates the universal ability of books to help them understand themselves, appreciate others, reinforce deeply held beliefs, and instill new ones.
In her outstanding book, Reading Still Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community (Libraries Unlimited, 2018), Catherine Sheldrick Ross points out that we have a two-party system when it comes to readers. There is the Important Book/Selective Reading Party and the Indiscriminate Reading Party. The first feels that there are books that are worth a reader’s time and others that are not. The second believes that all books are equally capable of satisfying and empowering the reader. All too often the debate about support for reading (and public libraries) boils down to a disagreement between these two factions. The truth, however, is that both constituencies have valid reasons for what they read and why.
The real debate should not be about a specific book or class of books, but about the importance of investing in an activity that has the power to transform the lives of our citizens. The question before us is – do we fully fund an institution dedicated to the proposition that all readers are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights to the books of their choice, and that the creation of a democracy of readers is in our enlightened self-interest?
How we answer this question will determine the kind of citizenry we have and the quality of the nation in which we live.