When Oklahoma lawmakers argue over what books children should be allowed to read, they seldom acknowledge the purpose of reading itself. They are mostly waging a political battle against “wokeness” (if anyone could define what that means) in which authors are writing about subjects that either shame children for the sins of their fathers, or tempt them to explore alternative lifestyles. In other words, books are for “grooming” children to become bi-sexual Marxists.
When the great poet Emily Dickenson said, “There is no frigate like a book,” she wasn’t advising us to allow only certain people on board. She was reminding us that nothing develops the empathic imagination like a good book, because reading is the key to the outside. She understood, as have countless psychologists, that when we are born, we are locked in a kind of prison of self. As babies we are a bundle of pure id, and this is necessary for survival. But as we grow, we have to escape this dungeon of self-absorption, in order to develop the most important single faculty for becoming fully human: to be able to imagine what it is like, what it is really like, to be another human being.
We are constantly advising one another to love the stranger, to feed the hungry, to show mercy to those who have fallen from grace, but this is impossible until we develop a moral imagination, that distinctly human gift which makes it possible to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes instead of just telling them to buy a new pair. Recent studies have shown that we are experiencing a sharp decline in empathy, but this should not be surprising. Social media traps us in echo chambers of like-minded influencers. Books, on the other hand, take us on incredible journeys into the lives of people not like us, people we might otherwise never understand, but only fear.
The great Quaker William Penn said, “Love is the hardest lesson of Christianity,” and Thoreau said no greater miracle could take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant. But this is an act of pure imagination. And let’s be honest, truly imaginative children frighten some unimaginative lawmakers to death. Isn’t this the tool of the devil? If you read about a gay character in a book, won’t you imagine being gay yourself? If you read about the Tulsa Race Massacre won’t you feel shame and sadness because you can imagine it? One can only hope so.
Here is one of the most disturbing and revealing phrases of our time: “I just can’t imagine.” We say it all the time. “I just can’t imagine why she said that.” “I just can’t imagine what he sees in her? “I just can’t imagine anyone being that stupid?” Or this, “What on earth has gotten into your head?”
This is how we dismiss what we cannot understand. We label what we have never imagined as outside the realm of being human. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killed 168 people, including 19 children, people said, “I just can’t imagine.” But it would be good if we tried since McVeigh himself imagined the Second American Revolution, bottle-fed on the anti-government vitriol of Rush Limbaugh.
Now that mass shootings have become as American as apple pie, people say they just can’t imagine what could have caused such unimaginable mental illness. But by all means let’s make sure we don’t imagine a world in which citizens cannot buy military assault weapons. As for banning books about people who are LGBTQ+, perhaps it would be wise to ask whether the mind-numbing violence of point-of-view shooter video games is not the real obscenity.
Television and movies produce images for us, while reading allows us to be in control of what we imagine. Although these mediums can also inform and inspire, they require less imagination. Now we seem to know more but feel less. The mind, after all, is like a gallery hung with images and when we read we are the curators of our own show. If you are looking for dangerous indoctrination these days, look at advertising, not books.
To often we say to our children, “That’s only your imagination.” But Quaker novelist Jessamyn West, who wrote Friendly Persuasion, said that no other faculty is more important to develop in children. She wrote:
“The most important question a mother can ask her child each night is not ‘What did you learn today?’ or ‘Did you go to the bathroom?’ or ‘Have you said your prayers?’ but ‘What did you imagine today?’ Prayers, learning, and health are barren without imagination.
The sick child may die, but the unimaginative child is already dead. The pious child who does not inhabit his prayers with imagination might as well be saying ‘Hickory, dickory, dock.’ The child who learns but does not illuminate his learning with imagination is an inferior calculating machine—but alas, unlike the calculating machine, capable of terrible brutalities.”
Perhaps we should trust our children more and give thanks for the power of reading to develop the interior life. Without understanding there is no empathy and without empathy there is a truly unimaginable future. Reading about the real world helps our children to live in the real world rather than in a fairytale.
Elizabeth Peabody was asked once how she happened to run into a tree on the Boston Common. Her explanation, “I saw it, but I did not realize it.” That’s the story of our time — 20-20 vision, but hearts that are not in focus because we cannot imagine.
When Joan of Arc was on trial for heresy, her tormentors accused her of imagining everything. To which she responded, “How else would God speak to me, if not through my imagination?”
Thank God for books, for librarians, and for those who trust the imagination of their children. If we are going to ban something, maybe it should be paranoid politicians.
The Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers is pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Norman and retired senior minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City. He is currently Professor of Public Speaking, and Distinguished Professor of Social Justice Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Oklahoma City University, and the author of eight books on religion and American culture, the most recent of which is, Saving God from Religion: A Minister’s Search for Faith in a Skeptical Age.