World Book Day


The crazies are out there.
They’re not who you usually think of. They’re not the guy talking to himself as he walks down the street. The poor woman who is sitting against a stone building with a cap open hoping you’ll give her some change. They’re not the people at the coffee shop who are out for a few hours from the local mental hospital. They’re not the guy who can’t stop moving, his feet going up and down to some invisible music while he holds out pages of paper on which are poems he has written. They’re not even the guy who thought his mother was a space alien and stabbed her.
Nope. Nope. The real crazies are the book burners. They wear suits, white shirts, their wives dress in conservative dresses, their hair is neatly trimmed. They are clothed in self-righteousness.
I know about them from personal experience. My novel, Gentle Sinners, was taught in a Winnipeg high school. The parents of one of the students violently objected. Not only that but they raised up the wrath of their congregation and campaigned against the book for two years. Yes, a lot of craziness comes from people who claim a religious text as the authority for their craziness. Even craziness needs justification. In some places it is, “I’m going to blow this airplane and three hundred people to simithereens by setting off explosives in my shorts, underwear, hat, shoes because God, whatever  his name, wants me to.”  “I’m going to ban, burn your book because God wants me to.” “I’m going to ________ because God wants me to.” 
God wants me to. Great line. A personal app to God. It used to be, “Long distance, operator, I want God.” Now, no need to call the operator. Wifi does the job direct.Some people don´t even need a phone.
If it’s not a personal wifi line, then it’s an interpretation of some selected lines from a religious text by someone who knows zilch about religion, the history of religion, the theory of religion. In a book the size of most religious tomes, you can find justification for just about anything. Including burning books.
Did Christ burn books? No, but that’s only because there were no books to burn. He did drive the moneylenders out of the temple and pictures of the temple sort of look like library buildings I have known so maybe he was driving readers out of the library. Could be.
You think this is crazy? Hey, Gentle Sinners was accused of leading kids to suicide. I was in league with the devil. I insulted religion. The real sin of Gentle Sinners is that it made fun of fundamentalist nitwits who were narrow-mindeded and ignorant. Particularly, it made fun of some fundamentalist preachers for their lack of Christian charity.Here I am, Lutheran, small c conservative, a believer who writes books with titles like Gentle Sinners, God Is Not A Fish Inspector in league with the devil. That makes it worse, don’tchaknow? A traitor. Not willing to tie authors to a stake, pile their books around their feet, soak them in gasoline and set them alight. Preaching that people should be free to read whatever they want.
I was invited to libraries to speak about books and attempts to censor books. That was because the campaign to get my novel kicked out of the school system went national. That’s when I discovered the crazies. Like the person who wanted to ban Treasure Island because it promoted homosexuality. In those days, the term gay hadn’t been invented. How did Treasure Island promote homosexuality, you may ask? Well, as the potential banner said, what do you think was going on in a ship with all those men and a cabin boy? Another wanted TI banned because it created a bad image for handicapped people. Yup, Long John Silver had a wooden leg and he was a bad guy. Someone else wanted Robin Hood banned because it promoted communism. Steal from the rich and give to the poor.Someone will, I’m sure, want to ban Sigrun Davidsdóttirs new book, Samhengi hlutana, because it exposes corruption leading up to the Kreppa. In Russia during the rule of Stalin, they didn´t bother banning books. They just shot the author.
You see, all the nut cases aren’t religious. Many of them are secular. Being a bit deranged isn’t the exclusive preserve of the young man who objected mightily to the title of my book of stories, God Is Not A Fish Inspector. He wanted me to kneel right there in the shopping mall where I was reading from it so that we could pray for the salvation of my soul. Hadn’t read the book and, if he had, probably wouldn’t have been able to understand it.
We’re lucky, folks. We come from a culture, whatever its short comings, that values books. We have a long history of publishing books. We have a history of literacy that visitors to Iceland regularly commented on. The tradition continues. Iceland produces more books per capita than any place in the world. They have 170 publishers and publish more than 1,500 books a year. Iceland’s population is the size of Victoria´s.    
They publish, buy and read this many books with a population of just over 300,000 people. Imagine Victoria producing 1,500 books a year.
In Iceland, fishermen write books, farmers write books, housewives write books, teachers write books, entertainers write books, clerks write books. They also read them. 
Someone standing on a street corner of Reykjavik with a sign saying ban every book I don’t agree with, would be known to be hopelessly insane. In North America they probably would be the leader of a sect or even a political party. They might even be the mayor of a major Canadian city.
The Icelandic Publishers Association, Félag islenska bökaútgefenda was founded in 1889. Incredible! 1889. A country that was reeling from harsh economic conditions, that was losing people to a major out-migration and here was an organization being formed whose purpose was to build a professional network of booksellers across the entire country.
It’s not surprising that a publishing organization should be formed in a country where in 1835, John Barrow could say that although the minster of Gardé was so poor that he didn´t have proper clothes for his position   “this poor man had a considerable collection of books, and among others, translations of some of the works of Pope and Young’s Night Thoughts!”
John Coles in 1882 said “we stopped to change horses and get our mid-day meal of skyr, coffee, and black bread. In the room where we were sitting I noticed a book shelf, and being curious to know the kind of literature which found favour with the small farmer of this country, I took the book down, when to my astonishment, I found it to be a Danish edition of Lockyer’s ‘Solar Physics.’ Our host, and elderly man, who had just come in from his work, was good enough to show me some other books in his small collection, amongst which were some of the works of Darwin and Lardner; he had also a Virgil. They had evidently been well used”.

Today is World book day. It is organized by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. It was first celebrated in 1995. It’s nice to see that the world is catching up to Iceland.

Celebrate World Book Day by going out and buying a book. Be defiant. I’d say go out and buy my books but there’s only one book still in print, What The Bear Said: Folktales from Lake Winnipeg. I doubt if there are many left in stores. The print run is pretty well sold out. That’s what it’s like to be a member of the Icelandic North American community. They buy books. So, buy someone else’s book. Buy a book unlike what you usually buy. Buy a book on growing potatoes, bird watching, espionage, 18th C watercolors, Canadian artists, Laxness, Icelandic turf houses. Buy non-fiction, buy fiction.
Read them for the enjoyment but, more than that, read them defiantly, read them as your act for sanity against insanity, for knowledge against ignorance, for tolerance against intolerance, for freedom against dictatorship. 
Read them because you are proud of your heritage.