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Commentary: Books, the great leveler

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Commentary: Books, the great leveler

There’s a room in my home that’s almost a shrine.

It’s an old bedroom on the second floor. When my wife and I bought the house 20 years ago, we installed gorgeous floor-to-ceiling bookcases and turned it into a library. Since then, we’ve bought several other bookcases, so the room now is filled with books.

My wife set aside this space in our home because she understood how large my hunger for books was and is. She knew I always wanted a library of my own.

A child of the lower middle-class, I’ve forever seen books as the great leveler. It isn’t as though the library at Harvard houses a different version of “Macbeth” than the public library in the loneliest community in North Dakota does. Or that differing rules of math apply from place to place.

Reading, I thought from an early age, was the best way to close gaps of opportunity and entitlement. The more I read, the better chance I would have to lead the kind of life I wanted.

But my craving for books was more than pragmatic. Books fed a part of me nothing else could reach. Restless by nature, I learned young that sometimes only reading could soothe me.

In my younger days, I consumed books with promiscuous relish, devouring more than 200 per year. Even now, in my more settled – and often more distracted – late middle-age, I still savor between 100 and 150 books each year.

(Yes, I keep a log of the books I’ve read. That’s the way it is with addicts.)

I spend a lot of time in my library. I do most of my writing – and rewriting – here. And I pass many pleasant hours reading and rereading the books that surround me.

Often, when I’m weary, frustrated or puzzled, I come into the library. I search the shelves for something that appeals, find it, plop myself down and begin to read. After a while, life begins to make sense or feel manageable once again.

During a week in the late summer or early autumn I spend even more time than usual in my library. That’s during what we here in the United States call Banned Books Week. It’s a time to renew one’s commitment to resist, in Thomas Jefferson’s immortal phrase, “every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

The Canadians have a better name for their similar event. They call it Freedom to Read Week.

That name gets more to the point.

Although there still are attempts by would-be autocrats in positions of power – folks who serve as a reminder that the human head is made mostly of bone – who try to suppress books, their tinpot tyranny isn’t the biggest problem.

No, that comes from the people and forces that encourage us to self-censor, to read only certain kinds of books.

“Good” books.

“Serious” books.

I got a note not long ago from a former student. She said she felt pressured to read certain kinds of things and leave behind the kinds of books – Harry Potter, Rick Riordan, etc. – that made her love reading (and writing) in the first place.

I wrote her back that she shouldn’t let anyone, including me, tell her what she “should” read or should like to read. She should read what she wants and let the books take her to places that will surprise her.

Studies confirm this. They show, for example, that children who develop the habit of reading do so by watching their parents read. It doesn’t matter whether Dad reads the sports page or Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” or Mom peruses People magazine or Jane Austen. Jack and Jill will see them reading and follow suit.

That’s why it’s so important not to put blinders on when it comes to reading. At its heart, reading is an act of discovery, a chance to explore both the breadth and depth of the world we inhabit and the lives we lead. When we open a book, we start on a journey. Often, we don’t know where it will end.

But that’s the joy – and importance – of reading.

That’s also why my library feels like a sacred place.

This week, I plan to spend whatever time I can free up reading.

I hope you will, too.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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