31 July 2023

Open Books. Open Minds.


There’s a lot of commentary out there over a surge in book banning.  I know this practice has been going on for a long time (in the past, arguably worse), but there's good evidence we're in a real book banning frenzy.  Either way, there’s nothing about book banning that’s any good. Not at all, at no time, not ever. 

The notion that the tender moral and intellectual sensibilities of the average school kid could be irrevocably harmed by a saucy, blasphemous or retrograde work of art is preposterous.  Kids are a whole lot smarter and worldly than anyone knows, especially their parents.  If there are, in fact, those utterly devoid of critical judgement, easily swayed by some loony, anti-social thought, then all book bans do is delay the inevitable.  Meanwhile, you’re denying the vast majority the opportunity to form their own opinions and triangulate their sense of where they fall on the socio-political-ethical spectrum. 

And by the way, books aren’t really banned in the US.  They’re merely kept off the shelves of schools and libraries.  Any half-intelligent kid can get her hands on any book published in the world, and she will, if she wants to.  Book banning is a fool’s errand. 

You may think book banning is a favorite right-wing sport, but there’s plenty of it happening on the left.  Worse, some of the banning is done by publishers themselves with revisionist versions of classic works.  They don’t seem to realize that this is just as censorious and illiberal as banning Gender Queer.

When I was pretty young, I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.  Both were beautifully written and nowhere near as salacious as I was hoping for at the time.  I also read Mao’s Little Red Book, and at no time did I feel compelled to murder capitalists or throw the intelligentsia into re-education camps.  I read all of Ayn Rand, which was lousy literature and had no influence on me whatsoever, though I wondered what all the fuss was about.  If you were corrupted by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye, you’ve got bigger problems than your choice of reading material.

I got a lot out of Ezra Pound’s commentary and obtuse poetry, though no fascist impulses emerged.  I think he was a traitor of the first order, but I still occasionally flip through The ABC of Reading, since it’s sort of humorous and full of compelling literary insight. 

Our son had a free-range education.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t offer opinions on what he was reading, providing some perspective, but he was never told how to think about the content.  I would only ask him to keep a big grain of salt nearby when facing various arguments.  Resonate to what moves you, but maintain a healthy skepticism.  You may at some time change your mind, and you’ll feel better about it if you didn’t first succumb hook, line and sinker. 

He turned out fine.  We don’t agree on everything, but that’s what independent thought is all about. 

It’s no accident that autocratic regimes ban books as a matter of course.  They all do, and always will, because they are trying to control their subjects’ minds.  Does history look back fondly on Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or Hitler’s book burning?  That should tell you all you need to know about censorship. 

The same applies to the news media.  I read everything, and always have.  Left, right and center.  I want to know what the political and cultural commentators are saying.  All of them.  Knowledge isn’t agreement.  It’s just knowledge. 

The most important impulse is to keep ones mind open.  Confirmation bias is absurd.  If you think you know everything already, don’t bother reading.  Use the time to ferret out trigger warnings in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or put horns on your head and charge the US capital. 


  1. I'm with you, Chris. I remember reading Lady Chatterly and thinking "that's IT???" I was about 16. But my parents let me read anything and everything, too, with little damage. And during my teaching career, I assigned seven or eight of the most frequently challenged books in the U.S., most of them often.

    My favorite memory is of near-self censorship. In my second year of teaching (before I had tenure), two of my tenth grade classes voted to read Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by ordering it through the paperback book club that sent us an order form every month. This was several years before the film came out, and I had not read the book, so I agreed. When the shipment arrived, imagine my dismay when I read the opening paragraph.

    Fortunately, a veteran teacher suggested I type a letter explaining to parents what I hoped to accomplish by assigning the book and have every student bring back a signed permission slip. One parent signed and commented "I need something to keep my neighbor's blood pressure up. By all means, do it." I think only one parent refused to sign, and changed her mind when I invited her in to discuss the issue with me after school.

    My kids loved the book and got a lot out of it. The only other problem I had was late in my career when many students of color didn't want to read Huck Finn because of the "N-word." I agreed and let them read either Native Son (Wright), Invisible Man (Ellison), Beloved (Morrison) or The Color Purple (Walker) instead and give an oral presentation to the class. All those books are longer and more complex, but nobody complained. By the time I retired, both the Morrison and Wright were in our curriculum, too.

  2. Chris I sit on the precipice: a book of mine, Crime Club (for teens) is expected to be banned in the southern states. It is currently in many high schools. Reason? It's a murder mystery, where the solution lies in the fact that an affair had caused the betrayed partner to commit murder...but everyone assumed the wrong person was having the affair. In fact, it was a lesbian affair. The kids in the Crime Club (who solve the murder) sympathize with the fact that twenty years ago, when the murder took place, the parties would have had to hide their love for each other. And how sad that would be.
    Many people have said to me, "if they ban it, you might get even more sales!" But truly, it only makes me sad. I want my book to be in school libraries, where kids don't have to pay to read it. And in truth, I live in Canada. I never DREAMED when I wrote it, that anyone would ever consider it an issue.

  3. I was fortunate - my mother let me read anything and everything (except comic books - I had to hide them from her). So, when I wrote a book report in grade school on The Decameron Tales, the teacher called up my mother to ask if she knew what I was reading, Mother replied "so what, it's a classic." They quit calling her.
    I agree - if ANY book corrupts you, you wanted to be corrupted.

  4. My wife and I never read the Little House on the Prairie books until we had a daughter. We started reading them out loud to her and at some point I said "We will read as many of these as you want but first we are going to explain what 'anti-New Deal propaganda' means."

  5. I agree with you, but I think there's a difference between "banning" and saying a book is an inappropriate purchase when working with limited budgets. You shouldn't have The Unbearable Lightness of Being in a K through 5th grade library. It doesn't belong there. Ordering it would be misspending the budget. And if the content of a book can't be read in a live-broadcast public meeting because it violates FCC guidelines, it's probably inappropriate for an elementary or (maybe) middle school library. Many high school kids are taking college level classes, so those libraries should have a very wide variety of material on hand. However, IMHO, asking a school not to purchase a particular book because it's not age appropriate for the majority of the kids is far less dangerous than canceling an author and stopping a book from being published in the first place. One is an argument over the best use of limited resources. The other is actual banning.

    1. I agree with you as well. Even if the budget could handle it, I wouldn't have Unbearable Lightness of Being on the K though 5 curriculum. You have to at least wait until they reach pre-teenhood, and even then, I'd be pretty careful. It's not a matter of book banning, it's appropriateness for the age. Nothing wrong with that.

  6. Other people have of course said this, but I think the main point of this effort is marginalization. First, if you can make certain social groups invisible - black people, Lesbians, etc. - you can deny them agency, or even existence. Secondly, and more cruelly, if marginalized people - gay teenagers an obvious and vulnerable subset - have no way of seeing themselves reflected in the larger culture (i.e., there are no books about them in the school library), they become doubly isolated, and at greater risk, of bullying, of suicide, ad nauseam. I don't think it's fear of ideas, per se, that drives this. Like much of MAGA-world, the cruelty itself seems to be the reward. Casting it as "grooming" is nothing short of gaslighting. The good news is that there's a lot of pushback, and framing it as a First Amendment issue seems to resonate.


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