Given that so many of us are readers, and so many are writers, I trust that title got your attention. I love books–they’re a major component of my decorating scheme, and of my life. But they don’t belong in most of my fiction. I write medieval fantasy–and most people for most of the Middle Ages were not literate.
Yet we love books so much, we want them everywhere, and so we put them in the hands of those unlikely to read, unlikely to even have been able to read. We take them so much for granted–both as residents of the modern world, and also as bookish people–that it seems natural to put libraries and bookstores in towns where people are still walking miles to go to market for vegetables they can’t grow themselves. I’ve read numerous beginning fantasy works which include personal libraries (an incredible luxury up until quite recently), or characters too poor to own their own books, who nonetheless pick up a text at some point in the tale and easily read it.
So I suggest that many authors need to consider banning books. Banning literacy itself from those not in a position to acquire it. Ask yourself: what is the means of production for these books? Are they manuscripts? If your society has achieved the printing press, I’ll grant you a few more titles and a somewhat wider audience. Are they printed on paper? Paper itself was a specialized commodity, requiring certain technology and production.
How about your book-owning character? Is he or she rich enough to own books? How many and what kind? How many and what kind of books were even available in the place and time you’d like to emulate?
And, lastly, sorry all you peasant-boys-who-would-be-kings, when and how did your character learn to read? Did he have access to any kind of formal schooling (abbey school, perhaps)? Do his parents have the sort of business that requires literacy, and thus they have taught their son to read? And yes, for much of my period of study, that is “he” as in male. Sadly, this lack of educational opportunity for girls persists in many places even today.
I think one of the reasons we see so many books in fantasy settings, and so many literate characters who, historically speaking, would not be, is that our readers are, well, readers. We want to create sympathetic characters, characters they will identify with, and the mere act of giving that character a book is a huge step toward bridging the gap between the reader and the fictional person.
Literacy–education in general–reflects the needs and values of the society. Before you place a library in your fictional castle, a pile of books on that fictional table, or a single volume in the hand of your character, you need to consider how it got there.