Point of View

The unconsidered consequences of Newfoundland and Labrador's book tax

"It's not just about illiteracy — as it turns out, people who read fiction are just more likely to develop empathy and compassion."

Why the province's controversial tax could do a lot more harm than you might think

Broken Books in St. John's. (Submitted by Knoah Bender)

At the beginning of 2017, the Newfoundland and Labrador government introduced a 15% HST book tax on every new book purchased. It's the only Canadian province to do so, and the move has garnered international scorn.

Besides the obvious financial strain on book lovers and small bookstore owners, there are sure to be long-term effects on Newfoundland and Labrador's illiteracy rates — a foreboding thought, considering the province's rates are already among the highest in the country.

But nobody has talked about the other unconsidered consequences that may impact the province's future. One of them is increased crime.

In a lecture titled  "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming," author Neil Gaiman refers to a talk he attended in New York about the building of private prisons. To plan future growth — like how many prisoners there will be in 15 years — planners based their predictions on the percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds in the state who couldn't read. It's a small insight that says a lot.

Broken Books in St. John's. (Knoah Bender)

But it's not just about illiteracy — as it turns out, people who read fiction are just more likely to develop empathy and compassion.

Research shows that people who read fiction in particular have a better understanding of others and are better able to change themselves. "These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life," notes an abstract from CellPress.

If you need a clearer example, let's talk about Harry Potter. A group of European scientists believe that children who read the Harry Potter series might actually grow up to be better people. They develop greater empathy and tolerance towards the disadvantaged, including refugees and gay people.

A tax exemption on books, like we see all across Canada and most of the world, tells the population that reading is important and essential...just like healthy food.- Matt Howse, the owner of Broken Books in downtown St. John's

If you're familiar with the Harry Potter series, some of the themes throughout seem more relevant now than ever. For example, there is clear prejudice towards "Mudbloods" (people of mixed wizardry and human ancestry), while "purebred Wizards" are thought to be better, more valuable people.

You might think that's a long shot, but three studies across different age groups were conducted to test the theory, and the hypothesis was confirmed: readers connected with the protagonist (Harry Potter) and dissociated from the antagonist (Voldemort).

The fact that readers, especially at a young age, are able to empathize and commiserate with characters and situations completely outlandish and unfamiliar to them (like wizards) is a strong testament to the power of fiction.

Broken Books in St. John's. (Knoah Bender)

So — future risks around crime and empathy aside — how much has the tax actually affected book sales and readers so far?

Matt Howse, the owner of Broken Books in downtown St. John's, says that sales have plummeted. "Combined with the economic downturn, the book tax is killing my business. Sales are down more than 50% from last year."

Howse believes the government is sending the wrong message. "A tax exemption on books, like we see all across Canada and most of the world, tells the population that reading is important and essential...just like healthy food."

The fact that online retailers are supposed to apply the tax on orders shipped to the province, but not all of them are and there doesn't seem to be a way to adequately police such non-compliance just exacerbates the problem.

Sure, we still have used bookstores, and libraries, and there are a handful of Little Free Libraries scattered around downtown St. John's. But it's hard to encourage readers to read and writers to write when our own government seems to place so little value in the power of literature.

Of course, children growing up in our modern school system will rarely turn out illiterate. But those who aren't introduced to the joy of reading fiction for pleasure may never develop the empathy so desperately required in our current world.  

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