One of the best things about books and reading – and I include crime fiction in this – is that they give readers the chance to explore and learn about different places, different events and so on. What’s soon clear is that a lot of those events, social issues and so on are complex. So understanding them means reading both sides (or to be more precise, all sides) of an argument. It means reading about a place from a variety of different perspectives. It means reading about an event from the perspective of the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers.’ To put it simply, the more deeply we read about something or someone, the better we understand.
Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction. Let’s start with the issue of immigration. Many different countries face the challenges that come with immigration. It’s very complex, with many aspects, perspectives and implications that have to be considered. There are plenty of novels and series such as Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Nina Borg stories that show some of the challenges immigrants face as they try to make a new life for themselves. There other novels, such as Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind, which depict some of the challenges that residents face when a new group of people with very different cultural beliefs comes in. There are issues of resources, bridging cultural gaps and and so on, and that’s only the beginning. Getting an informed perspective on immigration, what it means, what it entails and how best to meet everyone’s needs isn’t easy. It’s too big and complex an issue for it to be easy. But it starts with reading about it from different points of view.
Or what about the environment? Most people would agree that good stewardship is an important part of our lives on the planet. But we don’t agree on the best way to accomplish that. C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series often addresses environmental issues. So does Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage. There are lots of others too. Those authors show that not all environmentalists are wonderful people who want to help everyone live a better life. Not all developers are evil, greedy people. On the other hand, there are heroic environmentalists and contemptible developers. The task of balancing good stewardship with sustainable economic development is an enormous one. It’s not going to be accomplished without an understanding of all sides of the problem. It requires reading up on all of the issues and implications, and understanding many different perspectives.
And then there’s the whole question of prison and our prison systems. Crime fiction addresses this issue quite frequently and that makes sense. In novels such as Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage and Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos (and there are others), it’s clear that prison doesn’t necessarily reform criminals (and who counts as a ‘criminal’ anyway?). It doesn’t repair the damage they do. And sometimes, putting someone in prison does more harm than good. On the other hand, any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are numerous novels (I couldn’t even begin to list them here!) in which we see another point of view. We see that people’s lives can be saved when criminals are in custody. We see that victims of crime can start to get a sense of closure and perhaps start to heal when criminals have been convicted and are jailed. The questions of what to do about prison, prison reform and convicted criminals are extremely difficult to answer. They can’t be addressed just by reading one book or looking at one perspective. It may be that we can’t even approach any kind of solution until we understand all aspects of prison and what it means.
But…what if you couldn’t read all sorts of perspectives? What if you couldn’t find out what other people have done to face some of these difficult challenges? What if books that took certain points of view were banned? It’s not a fantasy, as anyone who’s ever lived in a place where books have been banned can tell you. It has happened and still does happen.
Among many other consequences of banning books, it means that people can’t sift through all sides of an argument – even sides they don’t agree with – to understand an issue better. It means that people can’t learn from what others do. It means that people can’t approach some kind of meaningful resolution to some of the big challenges that most societies face (poverty, class issues, inter-group relations, and the list goes on). In many ways and on many levels, it means that people cannot approach anything like the truth about an issue.
This week (in the US, at least) is Banned Books Week. I’m going to be looking at the topic from a variety of different angles as the week goes by (no worries; I promise I won’t spend the whole week ranting!).
For today, I invite you to pick a topic that really matters to you and where you have a very strong opinion. Doesn’t matter what it is; it could be race relations, the drugs trade, immigration, a particular group of people or political issue, or something else. Now, read something responsible written from ‘the other side’s’ point of view. Get an understanding of what that issue looks like from another angle. See what that does for your perspective. And be grateful there are books out there that let you do that.
To get a sense of what I mean about reading different perspectives, you’ll want to check out Marina Sofia’s excellent post on reading about the Middle East from two points of view. And while you’re there, do have a look round her superb blog. It’s a treasure trove of fine reviews, evocative poetry and lots more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Listen to her version and Judy Collins’ recording of it, and see which one you prefer.