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The High Cost of Banning Books

 

Margaret Hawkins

We art folks shuddered but mostly laughed to hear that some parent in Tallahassee, Florida, recently forced a charter school principal to resign after she showed sixth graders “pornography” in the form of Michelangelo’s David. While there is nothing funny about Hope Carrasquilla, who’d been teaching a lesson on the Italian Renaissance, losing her job, it seems likely she will land in a better, more enlightened place. Already she’s had a somewhat happy ending. At the invitation of Cecilie Hollberg, director of the Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, where David stands, Carrasquilla and her family jetted off to Italy for a private tour of the museum. Now the teacher can be seen online, smiling, while strategically posed under David’s most controversial body parts.  

Florida principal Hope Carrasquilla forced to resign visits Michelangelo’s “David”

As silly, and unsuccessful, as this latest attempt to bar access to art was, it wasn’t nearly the worst such thing that’s happened lately, only the most photogenic. David still stands in a public place for all to see, if you can get to Florence. And if you can’t, no problem. He and his privates are all over the internet, not to mention in every art history survey ever published. 

 

That is, if you can access one of those books. 

 

Days after Carrasquilla lost her job, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the so-called Parents’ Bill of Rights, which increases parents’ influence over public school curricula and school library acquisitions. Carrasquilla headed up a charter school; parents who enroll their children there agree to be part of such a system.  This bill affects every single public-school child in America, subjecting them to the whims and politics of the most vocal parents. 

“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, book cover by

Marilyn Tota, Senior Designer, PIK Creative.

“Myra Breckinridge” by Gore Vidal, book cover, 1968

Prohibiting access to visual art is bad, yes, but there’s something far more insidious about removing books from libraries and striking them from school reading lists. It’s hard to cancel an image once seen. Reading takes longer to grip the mind than does looking at something. It’s more difficult, and the chance that a child will give up is greater. To understand a text, you must spend time with it, concentrate, learn new words. Some students take to reading instantaneously, but usually the skill and inclination must be cultivated, especially now, in the face of ever-increasing online distractions. Only when a young reader is hooked can the mentor relax and let natural curiosity take over. To compromise that curiosity or, even worse, make its inception impossible at the exact moment a child is most likely to take advantage of it, is to steal something from that child permanently.

Reading engages the imagination like nothing else. It is both an utterly private engagement and a collaboration with other minds over space and time, erasing differences for a while, maybe forever. Reading, especially fiction, seeds empathy.  

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters still from the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

First, though, you have to find a book that entrances you, and often the most entrancing books are the ones somebody doesn’t want you to read. Maybe someone has to slip it to you across a desk, cover-side down, whispering “read this,” the way the boy next to me in freshman homeroom did with Gore Vidal’s “Myra Breckinridge” when I was 14. 

 

No way could a kid get his hands on that book (about a transgender woman) now if the MAGA Republicans have anything to do with it. The right is obsessed with controlling access to information — and ideas and feelings! — about sex and gender. And they don’t like critical race theory, either, fearing that teaching children the truth about American history will indoctrinate them to hate their country. Exactly the opposite is true. They want to sanitize our past and are willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of a “patriotism” that is anything but. 

The free trade of ideas is in jeopardy, thanks primarily to the Christian right, who use our justice system to pass unjust laws to control thought. But this spirit of thought control is even seeping into the left. Colleges increasingly police language, often to an absurd degree. Many schools encourage, even insist on trigger warnings, which over-protect adult students from encounters with bad words, prejudicial views, even nuanced exposure to despicable historical figures. Just stamping someone as evil doesn’t shed much light on their motivations or their effect. In our current culture of contempt, the left responds to the right with its own softer sort of censorship, but still couching it in rhetoric that uses the same small-mindedness it claims to decry. 

 

One of my best learning experiences was my public high school’s freshman English class. Our teacher was a tall, bony woman in late middle age with posh diction, a beehive hairdo and a rakish sense of humor. She kicked off the year by making us read Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology.” Together we gorged on sex, murder, monstrous acts of revenge, bestiality, gods eating their own children, and, yes, gay sex. Then we moved on to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Heroism and moral justice won out but not until we’d slogged through the rape trial of an innocent Black man, many instances of the n-word, and the big reveal: It was the white father who’d raped his own daughter, not the Black man. Shocking? Yes, but also mind-expanding. And reflective of real life. I wouldn’t trade those reading experiences for anything. 

Tracie D. Hall, Executive Director, American Library Association.

Courtesy of the American Library Association

Now, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been withdrawn from many high school curricula and even from libraries, deemed too disturbing for young readers. And it’s not only high schools that are caving to these prohibitions. I’ve had college students request trigger warnings for readings that mention death. But death follows life as surely as night follows day, and what kind of adults are we raising if we protect them from life?

 

What would any of us be if the only books available to us when we were teenagers were devoid of sex and deeply ugly behavior and history and pain and struggle and human debasement and obscene words and the points of view of disturbed people? And instead contained only niceness and views chosen with an agenda? I love “Winnie the Pooh,” but what if that were all we’d been allowed to read? I don’t know who I’d be if I hadn’t read “East of Eden” when I was 12 or “Lolita” when I was 15, but I wouldn’t want to spend much time in her head. She’d bore and muffle me.

 

Tracie D. Hall, executive director of the American Library Association, best summed up the cost of book banning: “Suppression of reading,” she says, “leads to the suppression of the imagination.” What a terrible thing to do to anyone, all that pleasure denied. Besides, our world is a mess. Imagination is exactly the skill we most need in order to save it.

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