Why we still need to love books: The Book of Negroes

What year is it again?  Oh, yeah, 2011.  Not that you would know it from listening to the latest controversy over a book, and the burning of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes in the Netherlands.  We take the right to say, read, write and publish what we want for granted and we can forget that everywhere on the political spectrum are idealogues who believe they should be permitted to control what we read and hear. (The ALA has compiled a great list of classic titles from the 20th century which have been banned or challenged.)

What made me jump up, spluttering incoherently, when I heard this story was that Roy Groenburg, chairman of the Foundation to Honour and Restore payments to Victims of Slavery in Suriname, had asked Lawrence Hill to change the title of his book without having read it.  (Oh, and if you haven’t, do now.) I’m not sure why that would surprise me.  Such a common thread in stories of censorship.  And it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway.  The title had been put into context for him by the author directly, (see Lawrence Hill’s column in the Toronto Star) but the man’s not interested in political discourse.  That the act of burning a book in a public park is one point on a continuum of repressive political violence that leads to things such as slavery does not seem to have occurred to him.

My mother, Janet McCluskey, was the literary arbiter of taste in the family.  She passionately believed in free speech and the power of books to open eyes and change minds.  Janet proudly spoke often of her mother, Elsa Shirley, librarian of the Cochrane Public Library, defending the choice to include Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in the library’s collection over the objections of many in the community.  In our family we all read, with few barriers to choice including age.  My father might read Slaughterhouse-Five and then pass it around after he was done, never mind that he was forty-seven and I fourteen.  If my mother ever wanted to control our reading it was more likely to be over quality than content.  Lolita was ok to read (no, should be read) because it was great literature – complex, morally ambiguous and stylistically superb. What she would consider “dreck” was a waste of time – no Nancy Drew or comic books in our house.  I had to go next door to read those.  (Now two of my favourite genres are crime fiction and graphic novels.)  Still, even if she disapproved of our reading choices, nothing was forbidden. I’m sure it irritated her to see us reading something she thought was beneath our intelligence, but her own ideals prevented her from doing more than roll her eyes.

Janet would have been appalled and scornful at the burning of Hill’s book.  She admired writers of all kinds and participated passionately in her local book club even within days of her death.  That someone would  take Lawrence Hill’s beautiful and thoughtful novel and desecrate it publicly in the name of – well, for any reason – would have enraged her.

At my mother’s funeral last year the minister read a passage from Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel about political repression and censorship.  It was an appropriate and  touching tribute to a woman who, throughout her life, advocated the importance of the imaginative life and the power of books to build connections and transform our world.