Opinion | Paul Olson: Have you read any good books lately?

At a time when there is much lamenting over the social and political divisions in America, consider how books and libraries give us an opportunity to connect with others and be more in touch with the diversity of cultures and opinions in our nation and the world. A good friend and I get together for coffee and conversation each month or so. We have contrasting political views, but we never bring up politics. Politics is boring. Often we will ask each other about books we have read recently which gives us an endless supply of topics to talk about. It is funny how fictional literature can enlighten us to truths about ourselves and others we might  not usually recognize. 

Books can connect two friends in Summit County or provide a bridge between people on opposite sides of the planet. The Harry Potter series has been translated into over 80 languages. A child in Colorado and a child in China may have much different worldviews, but they can be united in their dreams of becoming skillful wizards and quidditch champions.

From 2000 to 2009, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was the most banned book in America from school and public libraries due to the outcry from citizen busybodies. We should all be glad when kids are excited about reading instead of just playing video games, so it is baffling when parents find some misguided reason to be upset about a book which lets their children discover the magic of our world. Foolish muggles! If you care about freedom of speech you should oppose any efforts to censor serious (or not so serious) literature. As librarian Jo Godwin said, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

To further education and opportunity in America, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of 1,689 libraries in the U.S. between 1883 and 1927. The small midwestern town where I grew up had a Carnegie library that was built in 1912. I have fond memories of exploring the wooden bookshelves for an adventure novel while a huge clock ticked loudly on the wall. The library was the only public building in town where I could hang out for a couple hours after school to wait for a ride home.

Summit County is fortunate to have three library branches to provide a welcoming space for everyone. It is reassuring to know we each have these community centers where we can relax, connect to WiFi, and use the restroom with no obligation to buy a latte. Many of us take for granted our computers, internet access and financial ability to order books on a whim. Our Summit libraries are great societal equalizers that give everyone the ability to connect with the world and have access to whatever literature they want.

The 2018 book “Palaces for the People” by Eric Klinenberg makes a strong argument for the importance of social infrastructure in communities. Shared spaces such as libraries, churches, parks, daycare centers and bike trails can be vital in bridging divides in society and in safeguarding democracy. A vital strength of Summit County has been the shared vision of citizens and public officials to recognize the importance of investing for the long term benefit of the public so we all have good access to recreation, education, and health services.

Summit County is about to expand the North Branch library in Silverthorne, adding much needed seating areas, study rooms, and space for the children’s reading programs and community events. This added capacity is not for books but instead for people to gather for fun, education and entertainment. If you want to make some new friends consider attending the library’s Trivia Night or join their True Crime Book Club. Give your child an exciting and educational outing at one of the library’s reading events.

In order to reduce public spending for the North Branch library expansion, a substantial portion of the project is to be funded with private donations. If you are inspired by the generous spirit of Andrew Carnegie consider investing in this valuable addition to our county’s social infrastructure. Click SummitLibraryExpansion.com for more information.

At a time when headlines seem like a blur of bad news, remember that much of the anxiety we each experience is self inflicted. We nervously check social media or our email too often, and we religiously tune into fear-oriented cable news. A daily hour relaxing with a book may be the antidote we need to be calmer, develop more insight into society and feel a closer connection with those who seem unlike ourselves. The empathy we learn to experience for Harry Potter and other book characters will help us to empathize more with our fellow Americans and reader by reader we can gradually bridge the divisions in society.

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