The second of March is important to this blog for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, it marks the beginning of life for Never Say Dice co-founder Bugsy... who happens to share a birthday with the author Dr. Seuss. While his legacy may have seen some controversy over the years, especially these last few, it's spawned another thing important to this blog: Read Across America Week. While that particular holiday week isn’t something we at NSD had in our formative school years, reading is a pursuit that's been important to both of us throughout our lives and continues to be. After all, we couldn’t ask you to read this blog every week, or even have the background in TTRPGs and other games it takes to write this blog if we didn’t support and appreciate reading for its own sake. Reading is fun and mental. - A
A: I can go anywhere. I can be anything. These lyrics are part of the Reading Rainbow theme song. The show was a way to bring children into the world of reading and a mainstay of my childhood. Thankfully, it's continued on to subsequent generations. Perhaps those messages of going anywhere and being anything are why the act of reading has become so political (or maybe it was always so political. Or maybe people who don’t read just really hate rainbows). Reading brings knowledge, and that brings power, and those who already have power tend not to want to share it. Perhaps that's another reason tabletop games have been maligned for so long: you can go anywhere and be anything in those as well. Reading has sent out those messages' frequency and TTRPGs help to amplify that signal. It isn’t any wonder why both are so important to me. Both reading and tabletop games have gotten me through a number of rough patches in my life. Even if you’re only attempting to use either of them as a form of escapism, you’re still learning. We shouldn't malign those trying to pass that knowledge on to our youth, for we, too, were once in the position of gaining that power - the power to read and gain knowledge for ourselves. To go our own places and be our own things. Read Across America may just seem like a school thing, but really it's for everyone so we can save ourselves. So please, find the time, even if it isn’t this week, to stop for a few moments and read something. Bugsy, why does reading continue to be so important to you?
B: I, too was a voracious reader... if not quite as voracious as I wanted to be - my eyes were often bigger than my (metaphorical) stomach when it came to bringing home piles of books from the library. But even if I couldn't get through everything I wanted, I was utterly dedicated to books and would burn through my schoolwork so I could get back to whatever book I had with me... looking back, I'm surprised my teachers were all so tolerant of it. Every year, my sister and I participated in the "Book It!" program put on by the schools in conjunction with Pizza Hut, where you'd be given a button and stickers to put on it, one for every book you read. If you got five, you'd get a personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut. It was a smaller chain then, or at least it was here, so those were the only times we went there, linking them forever in my mind. It was a little prescient, I suppose, thinking of it as a place only accessed through reading and imagination, as the chain would soon reinvent itself as fast food with a focus on delivery, and the dim and smokey dine-in eatery relegated solely to memory.
Today, of course, we seem to have gone the opposite way, with great concern from all corners about the content of books available to young readers. The phenomenon of online outrage over "problematic" content in books, resulting in at a number of publications being delayed or outright cancelled, is far too complex to get into here, but I do find the relationship of content to readership here interesting. When someone is upset about the content of a book yet to be published, what's the underlying nature of their concern? Is that young readers might carelessly absorb unhealthy worldviews through the kind of unexamined reading that once earned me Book It! stars? In that case, directing ire towards authors and publishers seems a less productive approach than trying to encourage more thoughtful reading - otherwise it's a constant game of "whack-a-mole" going from book to book, author to author, publisher to publisher (although I'm sure that's still a factor for some participants). Not to mention that it's a belittling attitude towards perspective readers, the very group doing the complaining! An alternative is that they don't want to see the shared community "space" to become polluted and unwelcoming, the world of imagination bounded by the kinds of cultural superstructures that once dictated the kinds of books that could be written (by, for, and about certain categories of people) and are currently causing havoc and misery in the real world. Presented with increasing powerlessness over their own lives, it's easy to see how someone might be overprotective of even small gains in the imaginative space of books. But, ultimately, I think this concern is misdirected, often aimed at writers ostensibly on the same side, but making their points clumsily, all while the actual forces of oppression spread hate and cruelty unabated.
All of this brings us back to Dr. Seuss. Before he was a childrens' author, he was a cartoonist who, well before the US's entry into the war, recognized and called out the dangers of fascism both abroad and at home. This included the same kind of minority demonization and censorship enacted today. He also engaged in some of it himself through racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers and leadership, but showed his integrity by apologizing for this later in his life rather than denying that it had happened, accusing the people bringing it up of oversensitivity, or blaming the zeitgeist of his era. Dr. Seuss was a visionary who put on paper the kind of imagination and joy our system beats out of the young, but it's this integrity as much as those achievements that make me proud to share a birthday with him. And the best gift for both of us would be just as Andy and Read Across America urge: read. Read what you like, read something you don't know if you like, and think about what you've read. Talk about the ideas, the feelings, what happened in the story and what didn't. It's easy to take books for granted, even those of us who filled up Book It! buttons. Taking the time to appreciate what they are, what they mean, and what they can do is the act of celebration they and their creators deserve.
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