What are the book burners and banners afraid of?

If you cannot read freely, how can you live freely?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Four of nine books removed from schools in the Canyons School District and placed for review, Nov. 23, 2021. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Over Magenta by Susan Kuklin.

There are a few things you need to ask yourself now.

I mean you students who live in places where self-proclaimed guardians of public morals are busily banning books. This includes Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott wants to incarcerate librarians who give students access to novels he considers “pornographic.” And Tennessee, where a preacher in suburban Nashville held a fair book burning to destroy dangerous texts like “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

It includes Pennsylvania, where a school district now requires a citizen panel to approve any school librarian purchase, and Arizona, where schools are required to publish a list of all newly purchased library materials. And, of course, it includes Florida, where teachers in Palm Beach County were ordered to revise books in their classroom libraries to purge references to racism, sexism and other oppression systems, under a new state law restricting the teaching of those subjects.

It is no coincidence that this – from September 18 to 24 – is the 40th annual observation of the Week of the Forbidden Books. It is entering what Publishers Weekly called a time of “new urgency” in the struggle for intellectual freedom. Last year, it reports, the American Library Association tracked 1,597 individual books that were challenged or removed from public libraries, schools and universities, the most in the 20 years it has tracked.

So yes, you have to ask yourself a few things.

Ask yourself: What are these people trying to stop you from understanding or feeling? What do they think is going to happen when a book challenges you, confuses you, validates you, or just inspires you to see something from a different point of view? Why are they so afraid that you think otherwise?

Ask yourself: why are many of the books being challenged or banned by people of color or LGBTQ authors or have themes about race or sexuality? What are the book banners and burners afraid of if you are exposed to such things? Is it that you might start asking questions that make them uncomfortable? If so, isn’t that their problem — not yours?

Ask yourself: why are so many people who want to ban books from schools, the same people who have no problem letting guns in? They are terrified that a book will bring an idea into your head; why aren’t they terrified that a gun will shoot a bullet there?

Ask yourself: are you a fragile thing, a piece of human glass that needs the sharp edges and hard surfaces of new ideas wrapped in bubble wrap so you don’t bump into it? Or are you not smart and capable enough to take care of yourself?

Ask yourself: what is the difference between banning books in Iran, Russia, Cuba and other dictatorships, and doing it here? Should we be the ones who know better?

After all, this is still – supposedly – a free country. But that freedom is under siege, as evidenced by new laws that muzzle teachers, by the looting of women’s rights under the highly illegitimate Court, by schemes that prevent people of color from voting, by the attack on the US Capitol. And if voting and protesting are acts of resistance, this week confirms that just reading a book is. You could even argue that each of us has a patriotic duty to drive a book banner crazy.

Because here’s the thing: if you can’t read freely, how can you ever live free?

Ask yourself that while you’re at it.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com

Leave a Comment