For as long as human beings have been finding ways to record knowledge, other human beings have been destroying it.

Sometimes the stated reasons are religious, like when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of England’s monasteries in the sixteenth century, resulting in the loss and destruction of hundreds of years of art and texts. Sometimes it happens in war, as when the British used the fledgeling collection of the Library of Congress as tinder to burn down the US capitol building in 1814. Most often, knowledge is destroyed to make a point. When the German Student Union held mass burnings of “un-German” books in 1933, they did so to show themselves, their superiors, and the watching world that the Nazi regime was unified, justified, and had a common enemy worth rendering to ash.

Historical book burnings had the added benefit of restricting access to ideas as well as publicly declaring those ideas to be undesirable. It may be functionally more difficult to do the former in the digital age, but it has not made the latter any less popular. Anyone with a New York Times subscription or a bookish slant to their social media feeds cannot have missed the recent spate of op-eds and Book Riot articles and NPR stories examining (and decrying, in many cases) the sudden surge in book challenges and bannings across American schools and public libraries.

And there had been a surge: According to the American Library Association (ALA), 330 unique book challenges were reported between September 1 and November 30 of 2021 alone, double the total reports for 2020 and only 47 fewer than in 2019 as a whole. 330 might not seem like a large number, but all of the ALA’s stats come from civilian reporting; the organization estimates that 82-97% of challenges and bans go unreported.

We are now, in the twenty-first century, living in a time when books are being pulled from library shelves and school classrooms at a rate not seen in decades, and they are being so for the same reasons that they were in the sixteenth century, and the nineteenth, and the twentieth. The stated reasons might be because of the sex and the swearing, but those, like the banning statistics themselves, are self-reported. (When the Bryon Township Board of Trustees attempted to get Check Please!, a graphic novel set in a college frat house, removed from the Kent District Library for being “trash,” they pointed to the drinking and swearing, not the fact that the story is also a gay romance (the trustee in question later denied that his objections to the book had anything to do with the sexuality of the main character).)

I have a different theory. Fundamentally, all book challenges spring from two places: 1) the desire for power and 2) fear. When a lawmaker in Texas sends an “inquiry” listing 850 books that might make students feel “psychological distress” to schools statewide, that’s about power. Matt Krause is a politician in a competitive conservative state and all of us (even his supporters) would probably put money on the fact that he has not read all of, or even most of, the books on that list. When parents in Hudsonville, MI, successfully petition to have Half of a Yellow Sun removed from an optional school reading list for being “pornographic,” that’s about fear—fear that we can’t control the narrative, fear that our kids will learn that the world isn’t what we’re telling them it is, fear of the kinds of conversations that books necessitate. (And fear of the other. It cannot be a coincidence that half of the authors represented in the ALA’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2020 are people of color when only 11% of authors published in 2020 were.)

On a visceral level, this fear is even understandable. It is a difficult time to be a human being. It is a difficult time to be raising human beings. It’s tempting to think only about the wellbeing of children when discussing the surge in book challenges and bannings, and naturally so: No one is trying to pull And Tango Makes Three from the public library because they’re afraid that an adult is going to read it and be unable to handle the suggestion of gay penguin parents.

Evidence suggests that the kids are going to be okay. (For proof, please find the nearest passably normal adult and ask them what media disturbed them as a child. They will probably have one—mine is a morning radio show segment about a monkey that chewed a woman’s face off—and are probably not suffering overmuch from it.) I am more worried about the effects that these conversations have on adults.

Normalizing challenges to books inevitably normalizes the idea that we can make difficult things go away by ignoring them. It normalizes the idea that we can make the perspectives of people who believe differently than us disappear by removing them from our sight. It normalizes the idea that empathy is too dangerous to cultivate.

And normalizing those things has consequences.

In January, the mayor of a Mississippi town threatened to withhold $110,000 from the public library unless they purged all LGBTQ materials from their shelves. There is currently a bill in the Indiana Senate and one in the Iowa House that could make it easier to criminally charge librarians for giving “obscene” (a word with a complicated and vague place in America’s legal history) materials to minors. Even if these efforts to financially and legally punish libraries do not have tangible results, the threat of their existence may be enough to cause librarians and educators to self-censor their collections—power and fear in action.

One of the most telling soundbites of this era of the censorship culture war comes from a 2019 challenge to the book Melissa (perviously published as George), which is a middle-grade novel about a transgender girl. It has been the most challenged and banned book reported to the ALA for three years running (we’ll see if it can add one to its hat trick when the 2021 stats come out next month). One of the challenges to Melissa reported objecting to the book on the grounds that schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion.”

In Hesse, Germany, on the site where one of the 1933 book burnings took place, there’s a commemorative plaque that bears a line from a play by seventeenth century German poet Heinrich Heine: This was a prelude only. Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”

This is true and the final (in all senses of the word) reason why we should not seek to restrict access to knowledge. But perhaps the quote from the challenge to Melissa is more immediately prescient. Because if we can’t figure out how to deal with things that “require discussion,” then I don’t know why we’re bothering with books, or art, or religionor being human, really—at all.

1 Comment

  1. Courtney Zonnefeld

    Love all that you’re pondering here. I share your frustration with many banners’ fear of discussion–as if the point of reading books was to blindly agree with them, rather than to learn and grow and think after reading them. In these situations, students always seem to be “children” (even if they’re teenagers), and I hate how book banning discussions can revolve around how best to “protect” children rather than how best to move them from childhood to adulthood.

    Or, as you say, doing the “dangerous” work of cultivating empathy–in thoughtful, sensitive ways, absolutely, but actually *doing* it rather than avoiding uncomfortable conversations forever.


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