Reading is an entertaining hobby, but it is also an act of politics
It is important to recognize the politics of books because the art cannot be separated from the artist when it comes to literature
As with many other bookworms, I read to escape my own stressful reality by stepping into the world of someone else. People who read for fun have inspired imaginations and creative thinking skills. Plus, readers tend to have more positive outlooks on life compared to non-readers.
But, reading is much more than simply a form of entertainment. Reading is a great way to gain knowledge about the real world, making it a political act because politics are the intricate relationships between people within society, usually regarding people who have and don't have power.
Historically, reading has been linked to upward social mobility, freedom, and radical change. Reading and education coexist because the organization of political movements cannot happen unless people are educated on the issue. Many independent bookstores and libraries put out reading lists to support movements and to educate their consumers. For example, the Hamilton Public Library has a reading list for Black Lives Matter.
Reading and education are so powerful that many attempts have been made throughout time to censor or ban books. Book bans have been sweeping across the United States, but the removal of books is also happening in our own neighbourhoods in Canada. In September of 2023, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) was accused of weeding out 50 per cent of its library books simply because they were published pre-2008.
PDSB defended its actions by claiming that weeding out old books promoted inclusivity and diversity. However, by following the sole criteria of publishing date, the school board was erasing important history. The loss of certain books sparked anger because many of them were used to educate students on real-world events that should not be forgotten.
Reading influences the outcome of politics, but the creation of books is also influenced by politics. A book cannot be separated from an author just as politics cannot be separated from everyday life. Authors write what they know, embedding little parts of themselves and their beliefs throughout their work. Books reflect reality, both good and bad, and expose readers to a vast range of human experiences and world views.
Although reading can serve as a positive political tool to educate the masses, there are times when books do more harm than good. Unfortunately, readers can sometimes also be exposed to extremely problematic and offensive literature. Where books are hypothetical and imaginative for some, they are triggering for others when they mishandle or glorify topics such as homophobia, racism, sexual assault, and more.
I spend a lot of time in the online book communities of BookTok, Bookstagram, and BookTube where I often encounter the rhetoric of "keep politics out of books." But, for the reasons explained above, it is virtually impossible to remove the politics from books. As a content creator in these spaces who openly criticizes harmful authors, I get frustrated when I'm told I'm "making a big deal out of nothing" because "it's just fiction."
Many comments made along these lines have been in relation to my attempts at exposing authors who romanticize and erase the violent nature of sexual assault. For survivors, these books are never "just fictional" because reading them can easily trigger past or ongoing trauma. In addition, it can teach young readers that certain acts of violence are okay and prevent them from speaking up if they become a victim.
The art cannot be separated from the artist. When not held accountable for their actions, authors continue to profit from their harmful remarks and glorification of violence. For example, J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, has never apologized for her transphobic, homophobic, and racist behaviour, yet she remains a multi-millionaire.
To ignore the ways reading and writing are political acts is to remain in a state of ignorance. Being university students we are taught to use our critical thinking skills and we can extend this ability to reading. Yes, it is a fun hobby, but as readers, we are always in communication with society. We decipher what is true and what is not based on what we know about the political world.