Saturday, March 2, 2013

"Books! The best weapons in the world!"

Everyone loves a good story. But why are stories so important to us as human beings? They always have been. We need stories to help define who we are, to help teach us what we should do and what we shouldn't. Stories help us learn. They're extremely powerful and must be handled with caution. That's why people (especially dictators) often start burning books. Burning a book is a crime against humanity. We need books and we need the freedom to read and write what we choose. The stories books contain help maintain our identity as human beings.

Think of the Bible. Full of stories. Some stories end happily, others not so much. But they teach us about life and what we should do. A single story can contain many lessons. Take David and Goliath, for example. That story teaches us about courage and cowardice; faith and doubt; humility and pride; we learn that all things are possible with God's help and that weak things can be made strong. Someone could write a pamphlet teaching those principals, but without a story to illustrate the point, it would be really hard for anyone to know how to put these things into practice.

Stories help us decide who we are. This can be good and bad. Stories can inspire, but can also be used to deceive. I mentioned book-burning earlier. This has happened too many times throughout history, but one book-burning took place during Hitler's reign in Germany. Hitler was recreating his country's culture and he had to destroy the books that disagreed with him because they could make people think. People who could think would have asked too many questions. This was how Hitler was able to create an extremely convincing story to justify his actions. His story had everything that human beings want: villains, heroes, glorious deeds... but it wasn't true. And it hurt a lot of people. (I know that's an understatement.) Hitler, as an artist, understood the power of art to shape a country's perspective of truth. He used architecture, literature and film (what you might call propaganda), not just military power, to win over his country. We must be careful to recognize when we're being told a story and we should study it out for ourselves, then decide how much of the story to believe.

This is generally what happens in dystopic literature, too. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. A utopia is a theoretical perfect society. They work by creating a new story about human history and doing a good job of it. Think about The Giver, Uglies, Matched, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games, and other books where society has been remade to perfection, but there's something rotten under the surface. All of these societies have rewritten the human story to justify the often severe measures they take to "improve" life. The imperfections are more visible in some books than others, but you get the idea.
I really believe that books and stories are important to our culture. They help us define who we are as human beings. They can help us avoid the mistakes other people have made and they can lift our view to see how much potential we really have. We need artists and authors and movie producers who can look honestly at human culture and create stories to help us see who we are and how we could improve. Mostly stories teach us how to think, rather than telling us what to think. That's why they're important. There's never just one way to read a story. We have to think about it and as we do that we become stronger and more independent. The arts are vitally important because they reflect human nature and make us think about it. We should take care to choose the best stories, the ones that will inspire us to great and wonderful things. I believe in the power of stories to make us better people. Or worse people. I guess it depends on the story. So choose good stories and THINK about what you read, hear and watch!
"You want weapons? We're in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world!" ~The Doctor ("Tooth and Claw" 2006)