There are a few things you should be asking yourself now.
They are students living in places where self-proclaimed guardians of public morals are keen to ban books. That includes Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott wants to jail librarians who give students access to novels he deems “pornographic.” And Tennessee, where a suburban Nashville preacher held an honest book burning of Goebbels to destroy such dangerous texts as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
These include Pennsylvania, where a school district now requires a civic panel to sign off on every purchase made by school librarians, and Arizona, where schools are required to post a list of all newly purchased library materials. And, of course, it includes Florida, where Palm Beach County teachers have been ordered to review books in their classroom libraries to remove references to racism, sexism and other systems of oppression, under a new state law restricting the teaching of those subjects restricts.
It’s no coincidence that this is – from 18th to 24th September – the 40th annual event of Banned Books Week. It comes at what Publishers Weekly has called a time of “new urgency” in the struggle for freedom of thought. For the past year, 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 kept records.
So, yes, you should ask yourself a few things.
Ask yourself: What are these people trying to keep you from understanding or feeling? What do you think will happen when a book challenges you, confuses you, confirms you, or just inspires you to see something from a different angle? Why are you so afraid that you might think differently?
Ask yourself: Why are many of the contested or banned books by people of color or LGBTQ authors, or have themes of race or sexuality? What do book galleys and distillers fear that you will be exposed to such things? Do you maybe start asking questions that make them uncomfortable? If so, isn’t that their problem – not yours?
Ask yourself: why are there so many people who want to ban books from schools, the same people who have no problem letting guns in? You’re afraid a book will put an idea in your head; Why aren’t they afraid that a gun will fire a bullet there?
Ask yourself: are you a fragile thing, a piece of human glass that has to wrap the sharp edges and hard surfaces of new ideas in bubble wrap lest you break them? Or are you not smart and skilled enough to deal with yourself?
Ask yourself: what is the difference between the banning of books in Iran, Russia, Cuba and other dictatorships and 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 vividly testified by new laws muzzled teachers, the looting of women’s rights in the grossly illegitimate court, plans to bar black people from voting, the attack on the US Capitol. And if voting and protesting are acts of resistance, this week reaffirms that simply reading a book is, too. In fact, it could be argued 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 freely?
Ask yourself that too while you’re at it.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers can email him at [email protected].
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