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I Keep Coming Back to the Books
My mom only ever asked me to wait to read one book. We were on vacation (at family camp, which is a story for another time) and I had finished all the books I’d packed. I was rummaging around in our cabin, looking for something else to read, and I came across one of my mom’s mysteries. But when I asked her to borrow it, she said that there were a lot of crimes against children in it and she thought I should hold off for a few years. I’ve never been a particularly rebellious child, and even at the painful age of 13 or 14, this didn’t seem unreasonable. I put it back and went to find something else.
My mom gave it to me for my 18th birthday (A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson, for those wondering), tucked into the gift bag with my other presents, a little tongue in cheek nod to my new found adulthood, a little bit of an inside joke. I read a lot, all the time, with almost no supervision. My tastes never tended toward thrillers or mysteries, so it wasn’t like I was seeking out that content elsewhere, but by the time I was 18 I’d read plenty of books with sex in them, some with violence, and even a few with both.
As many of you know, I turned out fine.
I keep coming back to the book bans. I’ve written about them here before, and since then they only seem to have gotten worse. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law is forcing teachers across the state to dismantle or hide classroom libraries. In North Dakota they are considering a law that would result in jail time for librarians who don’t remove banned books from the shelves. Educational gag orders across the country are preventing teachers and librarians from sharing books with stories with queer themes or that deal with racism. According to PEN America, 183 educational gag order bills have been introduced in 40 different states since January 2021, and those that are passed are deliberately vague to devastating effect. As Greg Sargent argues in the Washington Post, defenders can use that vagueness to argue that the laws are limited in scope, while teachers and librarians are so cowed by the possibilities for transgression that they don’t dare stray anywhere near restricted topics or materials.
As a kid and a reader I was lucky in so many ways. I had a wonderful librarian in elementary school, and she moved over to the middle school library at the same time I did. She helped me pick out adult books that I could appreciate, like George Elliot’s Silas Marner.1 I was lucky that reading came easily to me, and that my teachers encouraged me. I was lucky to have parents who took me to the library, who let me wander off to one on my own as soon as it was built close enough. Books for me were a window to something more, to feelings and adventures and places I wasn’t sure I’d ever experience or understand. It’s recently come to my attention that reading was perhaps also a coping mechanism, not just a window but an escape from my anxiety about a world at once much too large and much too small.
Reading is not a panacea - it does not automatically make you a better person, more empathetic, more connected, or more kind. But it can. It can make the world richer and more vibrant and more real. Stories can be a place to hide when you’re scared and a place to find yourself when so much seems hidden. They can help you see humanity in yourself and in others when the small and scared and angry voices around you have tried to keep that humanity from you. Books allow you to branch beyond the comfortable, to wander far afield of the stories you’ve told yourself about who you are, so that you can dig deeper, ask harder questions, and maybe find better answers.
Is this what they are afraid of?
For all they claim to be defending children, every single one of these gag orders and book bans is designed to keep children scared of themselves and each other. Amanda Marcotte says in Salon that “authoritarians hate reading for the same reason they hate sex, or any private behavior that allows people to experience thoughts and feelings outside of the authoritarian's control. Learning to sit quietly and read by yourself is, for most people, the first step towards being able to sit with your own thoughts. It's crucial for learning to think for yourself.” And what they are really afraid of is that the kids will use that knowledge to change the world that Ron DeSantis and his ilk are so comfortable in; that they will upend the rigid binaries and systemic prejudices that give these wannabe authoritarians their power; that instead of small, scared kids eaten away by shame, these kids will find new ways of being, of loving, of unmaking and remaking that show Ron DeSantis how very small and brittle his own life is.
There is so much harm and suffering that comes out of right-wing extremism - cutting SNAP benefits and school lunches, the proliferation of guns and attendant mass shootings, banning gender affirming care, schools and clinics stripped of their funding, land and sea and sky poisoned, and growing poverty. It’s all so very important. Food, healthcare, safety, our very planet are all at stake. Perhaps at times the books seem small. But I keep coming back to them. I keep coming back to all the people who’ve helped me find the books that challenged and soothed me, who helped me understand them and therefore myself, to the free little library on my street, to all of those who think power only means something if it comes at someone else’s expense.
But I also keep coming back to good books, the way the words in front of me disappear and I’m inside the story, the way the whole world falls away, and for a few minutes or a few hours I can be anyone and anywhere and anything I want. I keep coming back to the sheer delight of a story that becomes a part of you, for whatever reason, to the books that you just can’t stop talking about, to the minute but searing agony of knowing you’ll never get to read your favorite book again for the first time. I come back to how much bigger and better and brighter the world can be if we let it.
Read a banned book this week. Talk about it on social media and with your friends and family. Recommend it to a local politician. Check out this list of live educational gag order bills that might be coming up in your state, and then call your local legislators and demand they block it. If you’re not sure how, put it in the comments and I’ll help you figure it out.
Left to my own devices, I read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street - a novel I found dumb and boring. Every adult I knew told me I wouldn’t understand it, but the Accelerated Reading program told me I was reading at a college level in the sixth grade so you couldn’t tell me anything. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood that test to be about vocabulary and not emotional maturity.