Perhaps a better question might be, “what makes a book worth dying for?”, since a long list of men and women throughout history, both famous and obscure, have died for a book. Looked at in a certain light, it seems profoundly irrational, or at least profoundly un-Darwinian, which is what makes it such an interesting question.
For a long time I’ve been fascinated by certain uniquely human passions that are as difficult to describe scientifically as they are undeniably compelling. What is it about music that stirs us so powerfully? Why do we inhabit imagined worlds in stories and film so eagerly? And, getting back to my initial question, what makes a book worth dying for?
It seems to me there are two things that make people willing to die defending or disseminating a book: either the ideas it contains, or a commitment to the universal value of the right of other people to read it. The first is the more obvious. People have often proven willing to die in defense of a compelling idea that gives their life meaning.
The second is more elusive. Some few individuals who have died in defense of books seemed more concerned with defending what access to that book represented than simply its content alone. Namely, freedom.
Not just the freedom of the author to say what he or she will, but the freedom of every person to bring themselves face to face with challenging ideas on their own terms, to wrestle with them, to accept or reject them as they will, regardless of whether or not that process is convenient to those in power.
Taking it out of the philosophical realm:
I believe that 12 year olds in Quattar should be able to read Marvel comics.
I believe high school students in Boise, Idaho should be able to read blogs and diaries written by their peers in Syria.
I believe that farmers in the Chinese heartland should be free to carry on an email dialog with their counterparts in France without fear of the government punishing them for the tone of their conversation.
On October 6th in 1536, William Tyndale was publicly strangled and then burned at the stake for insisting that every man, woman, and child in England had the right to read the bible in their own language, even as King Henry VIII was fighting viciously to consolidate religious control in his own hands. In high school I was taught that Tyndale was a martyr because he died in defense of the bible. That is certainly true. But I believe Tyndale would still deserve that title if he had died defending the people’s right to read a one act comedic play. When it becomes a question of the freedom of information and expression, every book becomes one worth dying for, or none of them are.