Books Are Inherently Political: It's Why They Are Burned and Banned

Graphic design: A woman absorbed in a book, with a burning shelf of books in the background.
Luz Media

Whether you’re an active reader who constantly engages in bookish online spaces like “booktok” and “booksta” or you’re a casual reader, you’ve likely heard someone say, “Keep politics out of my books!” at one point or another. This statement is usually uttered when readers are confronted about the kind of authors they support or about the lack of diversity in their reading.

However, it’s impossible to “keep politics out of books” when the very act of reading is political in itself. Throughout history, literacy has been connected to radical change, freedom, and social mobility.

Image by expertbooksmuggler on Instagram

Image by expertbooksmuggler on Instagram

Reading books isn’t just a means of entertainment, escapism, or education, it can also be an act of activism. No political movement in history would’ve happened without educated people or a means to educate others and inspire action.

This is why many bookstores, libraries, and activists create and share reading lists to support movements. For example, with the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people, Palestinian stories and authors are constantly being highlighted in bookish spaces to raise awareness and educate people. Efforts like #ReadPalestine week, organized by Publishers for Palestine, is just one example, but individual content creators also share recommendations.

In celebration of World Book Day, we discuss a few reasons why reading is and will always be political.

Stories are a reflection of reality and human experience

At no point in time have war, disease, hunger, poverty, racism, injustice, etc., not been a part of our reality and human experience. Authors know these things either in theory or because they’ve lived them themselves. As a result, they inform their stories and are reflected in them. This is how, as readers, we’re exposed to an incredibly diverse range of human experiences through the books we pick.

It doesn’t matter if the stories are based in the real world or fantasy worlds, writers write what they know. Their experiences and knowledge of the world are always found in the stories they create in one way or another, and isn’t everything in our lives either caused by or affected by politics? Politics are involved even in the books we don’t have access to, or limited access to, because book banning, despite constitutional amendments that were supposed to protect against that practice, still exists and is flourishing.

Authors pour political elements into their works, whether to expose an aspect of our reality for its ugliness or to reimagine it. For example, “The Hunger Games” books aren’t just about a young girl trying to save her little sister. They’re about totalitarian governments, genocide, political repression, poverty, surveillance, revolution, sacrifice to achieve societal change, and more.

Books offer political expression and inspire action

Political expression can be found in all kinds of books. Yes, even romance books. Love stories involve all kinds of characters and depict all kinds of relationships. They also reflect the qualities of ideal partners, which are highly influenced by society. Whether it’s people from different social classes falling in love, interracial relationships, and more, authors can and do explore social issues through their characters’ relationships.

Of course, political expression can be positive or negative. While stories can imagine a more just world to provide comfort and hope, perspective, or criticism of the issues that plague us, they can also reinforce, promote, or even seek to rationalize those issues.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter what the intention of the author is, reading is learning. Instead of learning to uphold harmful political views, values, beliefs, or even stereotypes, we should learn to challenge and dismantle them. What better way to do that than through books? Reading can make a difference in who we are and what we believe, being aware of that fact is a lot more productive than trying to separate reading from politics.

diverse selection of books

Image by bookedwithrook on Instagram

Image by bookedwithrook on Instagram

Therefore, banning a book that explores one aspect of a relationship while allowing books that explore another is, in and of itself, a form of selective indoctrination. The selection of books can teach us to uphold harmful political views, values, beliefs, and stereotypes while offering no other perspective that challenges any of these views.

Reading and politics: an unbreakable union

While reading is often done for entertainment or relaxation, many seek how to gain more empathy in books. Books allow us to explore experiences and perspectives that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. That exposure can affect us deeply and inform the way we approach not only other people but also our contributions to society. Authoritarian regimes know this and have used book burning throughout history.

Today’s book banning is akin to piles of burned books reduced to ashes.

Books communicate things about their authors and the world as it was at the time they were written. The very act of choosing a book is political. For example, choosing to read books that champion diverse stories when the publishing world is so white can be a political act. While books can provide comfort, enjoyment, relief, joy, and more, they’re also one of the many ways we can use our agency to affect change.

Books are one of the many vehicles through which we exercise our power to influence our community. On this World Book Day, let’s think more critically about the kind of stories we consume and recommend to others, and let’s vow to use books to promote diverse experiences, understanding, kindness, and positive change.

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