One of the things that unites the Rabbit Room community is a love of Story. So it was fitting that their second annual Hutchmoot featured formal lectures and discussions about tellers of True Stories: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Wendell Berry, Fredrich Buechner, Madeleine L’Engle and many more. Sessions on literature were led by writers from within our own beloved Rabbit Room – Jennifer Trafton, SD Smith, Andrew Peterson, Jonathan Rogers, Travis Prinzi, Pete Peterson – who are all trying, as my professor Steve Garber so frequently said, to tell stories that are “shaped by the truest truths of the universe, but in a language the whole world understands.”
As a child, my home had no shortage of stories. Some of my earliest memories involve me and my sister lounging by the one air conditioning unit in our childhood home, listening to dad read us stories. He read Nancy Drew mysteries and James Harriot books. Mom would read Winnie-the-Pooh and the Velveteen Rabbit, and even now when I read The Polar Express I can hear only her voice. And then there were the stories demanded by us that were formed on the spot: My dad would tell tales about “Steggy” and “Bronty” (adventures of some stuffed dinosaurs that lived in my sister’s room) and my mom would create a world inhabited by the dust bunnies that lived under our beds.
We lived in a world of stories and devoured nearly every book that came our way. I remember reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda when I was in grade school and not having a category in which to place a household with no books. Stranger still were books that I encountered in high school and later life – Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and The Book Thief – that spoke of a sanctioned revisionist history and books that were viewed as dangerous and subversive. But these books opened my eyes to the true things that were happening around me. There are those who do view books as dangerous and people who mount protests to have certain literature banned from libraries and school coursework. I understand the merits of wisdom and age-appropriate boundaries; that drawing any line is a slippery slope. But I trust that you will rightly interpret my frustrations.
As Hutchmoot was ending, I was feasting on the many words offered that upheld my beloved books. In a session on children’s literature, Sam reminded us that “books help train our thoughts and deepen our comprehension of truth”. And so it is still hard for me to understand those who would seek to limit that which broadens us. Yet all week, people across the country are talking about banned books; that’s because it’s Banned Books Week. It’s a time to raise awareness about all the good books that sit on shelves or never make it onto the shelf because a small group of people objected to the content. I think that I am primarily opposed to censoring good books because it suggests to me that people can’t think; that we will absorb all that we read without challenging it, or noticing all the ways that it is telling a true story, even if it’s a sad or dark one. But it all this censorship of literature becomes a Catch-22 (which you wouldn’t know about if you’re from an area that’s objected to this Joseph Heller book) and weakens our ability to challenge that with which we disagree:
The more limited the literature we give to our children, the more limited their capacity to respond, and therefore, in their turn, to create. The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves. We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet
Good stories open our minds to possibilities and worlds that we didn’t even know we could imagine. They take us just far enough outside ourselves that we can see with fresh eyes the lessons they have to teach us. Walker Percy once wrote that “bad books always lie; they lie most of all about the human condition.” Literature that tells the truth, even if it’s dark truth, or snapshots of truth that are not seeking to describe the whole picture have merit – they “deepen our comprehension of truth”, allowing us to see more clearly the fallen world, yearning for redemption, that we are living in.
This week in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson published an editorial giving one of the best arguments for literature I’ve read in a long time. He lauds To Kill A Mockingbird, a book that has been challenged for many decades across the country.
But unlike Golding [author of Lord of the Flies], Harper Lee gives the adult world a moral voice. Atticus Finch teaches his children, Jem and Scout, that the proper response to injustice is courage — a virtue that appears in unexpected places and shines brighter as hope fades. “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin,” Atticus explains, “but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” It is present in Mrs. Dubose, choosing death without the comforts of morphine, and in Atticus himself, pressing his hopeless case against bigotry. Rather than a decisive battle, courage is a little voice at the end of the day saying, “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
This is what children need to be learning. This is what all of us need to be learning. How different would our world be if more students learned to fight injustice with courage? If, through stories, we stepped back and regained a clear view of reality, both as it is and as it could be; just imagine the world that we could create.
Gerson closes his editorial with a strong hope for those who get drawn in to a story that’s bigger than themselves:
This is the hope: …That a 13-year-old, like many who came before, might glimpse real courage in imaginary lives. That the end of innocence might be the start of sympathy. That even junior high can include a little grace.”
And this is my hope for all of us – may we all glimpse real courage in imaginary lives and in so doing, boldly transform our own corners or the universe.