Every year NoveList sponsors the Andrew Carnegie Awards for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. This event is an opportunity to celebrate some of the finest books of the year.   In preparing some brief remarks for the awards ceremony, I thought about WHY we do celebrations like this one. After all, there are LOTS of things for us as humans to talk about right now. Why books? 

For example, we are struggling to figure out how to handle a global pandemic and economic recession. We’re dealing with deep, complex problems like racism that divide us. We’re searching for solutions to persistent long-term issues that are only getting worse while we search. We have a lot of problems we need to figure out answers to. So why talk about books? 

I’d like to suggest that it’s because books are a secret weapon in our struggle to answer those big problems. Because reading books is how we learn new information, but also, they are how we learn to become better human beings. The stories found in books can open our eyes to new ways of thinking, give us a better understanding of other people, help us become more compassionate and understanding, and inspire us to think of new ways of solving problems.  

I know that sounds like a tall order — how is it possible that something so simple as reading a book can lead to such significant change? 

A few months ago, I read an interview that someone had done with former President Obama. He was talking about how reading had impacted him. And he was asked why he read a certain book that was written by a white person and considered to be a pretty racist book. Here was his answer: 

“… because the book teaches me things, about white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it… So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid... The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.” 

That is so powerful. That is what a work of fiction was able to do — it was able to open a window into how someone else was thinking and experiencing the world. And for sure, we have to acknowledge that the other thing that happened was that someone read the story with an open mind and willingness to learn from what he was reading. But this is a very powerful lesson for us about the power of books to change lives. 

Now imagine a whole building full of books and stories that are just waiting for everyone in your community to come to read and learn. I’m talking about a library, of course. Libraries are the perfect place for people to come together, learn, and begin to build bridges rather than walls. 

And librarians are the champions of our stories. They connect each of us to the books that just might change our perspective on something or help us understand a problem differently. Librarians believe in the freedom to read, the freedom to learn, the freedom to question. They believe in empowering people to better themselves and their situation. We need that right now. 

And yet libraries are struggling. The economic downturn is causing reductions in library budgets; staff are being furloughed or laid off. We are at risk of losing our libraries and the people in them. Which means we are at risk of losing our ability to solve big problems. We should not sit quietly while that happens. We should advocate for library funding even in these tough times. 

So back to the question I asked at the beginning — why should we spend our precious time talking about books? It’s because it is one of the most important things we can be doing right now. We need to let authors share their stories with us. We need to let them give us a window into their experience so that we can all learn and grow. 

As an organization, NoveList is dedicated to the idea that books and stories can change lives. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to use them to forge deeper understanding and connections with each other. 

This post has been modified from its original use at the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction Virtual Celebration.  

Danielle Borasky is the Vice President of NoveList. She is currently reading The Night Watchmen by Louise Erdrich.