I guess we're burning books now

The answer is more books. Not fewer. Always.

I guess we're burning books now
Photo by Jonny Caspari / Unsplash

This week, a Virginia school board instructed high schools to remove “sexually explicit” books from their libraries. Two board members called for the books to be burned. It’s not clear from any of the reporting what “sexually explicit” means to the board members. The vote to remove the books came after the parents of a high school student complained about two books in their child's high school library, ‘Call Me By Your Name’ and ‘33 Snowfish’.

‘Call Me By Your Name’ follows a sexual relationship between a 17 year old boy and a man. Obviously, even in places where 17 is the age of consent, a sexual relationship between an adult and a 17 year old is...rife with issues. ‘33 Snowfish’ is about homeless children who endure sexual abuse and trafficking, among other things. Even positive reviews acknowledge it's incredibly difficult to stomach.

There is a huge difference between required reading and available reading.

I haven’t read either of them. It's not a stance I've taken. I just haven't picked them up. (I've honestly been meaning to get to Call Me By Your Name. I just haven't yet.) People in that Virginia school district are free not read them too. No one is being required to read them. They are not on syllabus. They are on a shelf ready to be picked up, or not. There is a huge difference between required reading and available reading.

That’s not really censorship, it’s curation.

I wouldn’t hand my 12 year old either of those books. And once she’s an older teen, I am probably not going out to buy either one to stick on her bookshelf. That’s not really censorship, it’s curation. Every library - the bookshelf in our home, the library at school, the public library in our city - is curated. Physical books take up physical space and shelves only have so much room. By choosing some books, we leave out others. Physical space constraints don’t apply to digital books, but libraries have to curate those too. eBooks cost money and libraries have budgets.

I am deliberate about the books that fill my kids’ bookshelves. I want them to fill their limited space - physical and mental - with things that challenge them, expand them, discomfort them and comfort them. Sometimes a book can do this all at once. But not usually. And sometimes books aren't worth the harms they hold. I’ve removed books from our shelves that I put there. Usually classics I revisited by beginning to read them aloud to my kids.

I took The Secret Garden off of our shelves. I remembered loving it as an eight year old. But I hadn’t read it since. I started reading it aloud to my middle daughter during the pandemic. We only got a few pages into it before I closed it. That book is just really forking racist. We talked about what we’d read and then talked about why we wouldn’t read anymore. We moved on to another book.

So. I am intentional about books in our home. I understand constraint leads to curation. The two books cited in the complaint are not two books I am going to hand to my child. And I’ve removed books from our own home. At first glance, it might seem like I’d be on the parents’ side in this case. But I am not. I am horrified.

State-funded libraries in schools and in communities are curated by librarians. Books are taken down from the shelves all the time - for being in poor condition, out of date. Sometimes they are removed because of objectionable content. There are some books librarians can’t bear to lend.  Librarians are people and so their biases and beliefs will influence what remains and what is removed. Sometimes those biases and beliefs will align with ours, sometimes they will not. There's no way to build a library without this human element - and if there was a way, I wouldn't want it. Can you imagine a library stocking algorithm? Like TikTok meets Zillow Offers meets Amazon Books? Horror upon horror.

Public libraries are not supposed to function like private libraries.

Public libraries are physical representations of the knowledge commons. Librarians are stewards of their corner of that commons. A steward is not always going to make the decisions we would make. Which is good. Because public libraries are not supposed to function like private libraries. They will, and should, hold various titles that all of us find offensive in various ways. I think we can have a spirited debate about subjects that simply cannot sit on a public library's shelf. But, the books that I think should be kept off public library shelves form an incredibly narrow category.

You can blame my childhood, I guess.

I grew up in a relatively sheltered home when it came to content consumption. I didn’t see an R rated movie, outside of Tombstone, until I was in my teens. And even then, it was a matinee of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow with my mom. My dad thought music was influential and kids were impressionable. Adult themes were fine, but he drew the line at crassness or violent misogyny. So I grew up listening to 60s country feminist anthems like Jeanie C Riley’s Harper Valley P.T.A. but would have had to sneak a Blink 182 CD into my house. Not such a bad trade off, looking back.

The rule was pretty simple. If we could finish a book, we could read it.

But books? Books were fair game. The rule was pretty simple. If we could finish a book, we could read it. I was an incredibly precocious reader, so that rule meant I read lots of adult things when I was fairly young. When I was ten, I read Nancy Drew like lots of ten year olds. But I also read Of Mice and Men. I finished it late on a school night. My siblings were asleep, but I could hear my parents murmuring downstairs. Sobbing, I grabbed the book and stalked into the living room.

“How could you have let me read this?”

My dad kind of laughed ruefully, “Well, what did you think?”

How could I hate everyone in the book but feel so much sorrow?

I thought they’d failed me. They hadn’t protected me from the way Crooks was hurt by white men and a white woman. They hadn’t held Curley’s wife’s namelessness or death away from me. They’d let me see that some books told a different story about the American Dream; one that didn’t line up with the stories told in my fourth grade history textbook. And they’d let me feel confused. How could I hate everyone in the book but feel so much sorrow?

But I couldn’t really articulate any of that...because I was ten. I could only feel it. So I said, “Steinbeck is stupid!” And then stalked back upstairs. Where I cried some more.

There’s no way in hell my parents would have let me watch a film version of that book. Or almost any of the other books I read for the remainder of my childhood. Their rules acknowledged a difference between movies and books. I can let Netflix roll from one one show to the next, bits and pieces of what I see embedding into my brain while my mind wanders. Books aren’t like that. They require engagement. And when I am engaged in reading, my mind talks back to the book. Agreeing, disagreeing, expanding, contracting. Movies are a broadcast. Reading is a dialogue.

Reading is a dialogue.

(Listening to books is the same as reading books on the page. Which I think we all know. But I am including that just in case it’s not clear. My 10 year old daughter with dyslexia is having as much of a dialogue when she listens to her books as I am when I read them.)

My dad didn’t hand me Of Mice and Men. I can’t imagine he thought it was like...exactly age appropriate. But when I picked it up at Borders on one of our book buying binges he said,

“Add it to the pile. I’ll be interested to see what you think.”

He trusted me to have the dialogue even before I had the words to articulate my half of it. The way that book made me feel changed everything. Sometimes I chased the feeling, trying to understand it. I picked out The Pearl and handed it to him at Borders a few months later.  

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

When I finished that book, I swore out loud for the first time. Other times I stayed away from the feeling, buying Mrs. PiggleWiggle and more Nancy Drews. But always, I remembered it.

That was important for me to understand about myself. I could cry for people I hated.

I remembered that a man had written a book where no one got what they deserved, most people were mean or bad and everyone was sad. And still, I cried. For them, for the people they hurt, for the whole rotten world. That was important for me to understand about myself. I could cry for people I hated.

There is a difference between the books we hand our children and the books they pick themselves. My kids have picked up plenty of books I didn’t hand them. Sometimes I raise my eyebrow, but I always trust them to have the dialogue. If they can finish it, they can read it. When they finish the book, they sit with me - or stalk over to me - and we get to have a dialogue too. Are there a few books I'd ban from my kids' shelves even after they picked them? Sure. But again, that's an incredibly narrow category.


Well, I read those too. And I had a dialogue with them also. I was a Mormon girl waiting to have sex until I got married. A super-virgin who had never been kissed. The sex scenes I read in books helped counteract the one-note, often violent, online pornography that was becoming mainstream as I moved through high school. The few times I came across porn, I thought, “I don’t think that’s how it goes because [insert book sex scene here].”

Even the sexual assault scenes I read provided this context for me. When I read about assaults in the book, I knew they were supposed to be upsetting. And so when I saw those same violent acts depicted in porn where women were shown enjoying them, I had enough information to be skeptical. Seeing porn then was nearly inevitable, now it absolutely is. What if Never Been Kissed Me only had the violent domination of busty blonde women to reference when it came to sex? When a boy told me something was normal, what context would I have had to know whether he was right?

As I got older, I was able to see that sex is often represented in many different ways across many different mediums and genres. And because of this plurality, no one dogma could claim me. What seemed aggressive to me might not seem aggressive to another. What was all right for me was not for someone else. The dialogue I had with all kinds of sex scenes in books as a high schooler helped me figure out the broad lines of what I wanted, and what I absolutely did not want, before I ever even kissed someone. (My first kiss was Riley. When I was in college. I thought he was in love with me. He thought he was helping his best friend finally check one thing off her list. A story for another day.)

You know those parents with the complaint in Virginia? They said they were mad about the “explicit sex” in those two books. But then they said something else. They’d searched terms in the online school library. According to a local news report,

“The couple was also upset about what they say they found searching terms in the online school library.
"Results for pedophilia, 16. Lesbian, 84," the woman said. "Jesus, 19, but half of them are about Muslims."

Okay, I'd be interested to know the context of the pedophilia results. There are some depictions of child abuse and CSA that should simply not be part of the commons. But the people making the complaint are counting on that. That's why they said pedophilia first, before moving on to lesbian and Jesus but not mentioned in a Christian enough context.

They want to be able to be say, "OH! So you are PRO PEDOPHILE?!" when people push back against banning books about gay people and Muslims. Like those three belong in the same category. It's disgusting. And they are doing it on purpose.

They are trying to shut down dialogue so they can broadcast ideology.

Here’s the thing with book banning and book burning. It’s never about the sex scene or whatever else the book burners claim. It’s always about the power to limit dialogue. These parents aren’t trying to protect their kids from explicit depictions of sex, as fruitless as that would be in the age of smartphones. They are trying to shut down dialogue so they can broadcast ideology. That’s what book burning does. That’s why the Nazis were so into it.

They know that books are powerful because readers are powerful.

Book burners know that books require readers to engage, to agree or disagree, to think, to expand or contract. They know that dialogue is a prerequisite of understanding, that it's as powerful as Plato thought it was. They know that books are powerful because readers are powerful.

Of Mice and Man is on the American Library Association's most challenged bookslist. Lots of parents have tried to remove it from public bookshelves. And you know what? I haven’t read it since I was ten years old. I am not really a bigger fan of Steinbeck now than I was when I shouted “Steinbeck is stupid!” twenty-six years ago. I am not handing that book to my kid. But if my 10 year old picked up Of Mice and Men, I’d say,

“Okay. Add it to the pile. I’ll be interested to see what you think.”

And then I’d add a book to the pile too. One I thought was better, or kinder, or would make her more uncomfortable in a more expanding way. The answer is more books. Not fewer. Always.