Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Anti-Reading Crowd Is Never Satisfied

At the heart of the raging controversy about reading restrictions, there are books about which reasonable adults can disagree, even books that the most ardent free speecher might not want their younger children to read. This is why one tactic of the reading restriction crowd is to shove the most extreme excerpts and pictures in front of audiences. If you aspire to being a reasonable person in these debates, you probably accept the premise that there are some books that do not belong in the middle school library.

But no matter how reasonable you want to be, you have to remember one thing.

The book banners, reading restrictors, censors, ultra-conservative crowd, whatever you want to call them--the people out in front of this drive-- are never going to be satisfied.

There will never, ever, be a day when they will say, "Well, I think that's it. We are perfectly happy that the truly objectionable stuff is out of the school library, and we're going to go home now because our work here is done."

The Moms for Liberty members who call the sheriff because a librarian let a 17-year-old check out a young adult fantasy novel that barely counts as PG-13 for its sexy content. The people who count victories in terms of total number of books removed. They're not going to be satisfied ever. Ever.

We've seen lots of questionable book challenges, like the classic overly-sexy seahorses, but to see how this really goes, look at Collier County Public Schools in (of course) Florida. They've yanked a reported 300+ books from shelves in attempting to follow HB 1069, the anti-sex talk law that was noted for probably forbidding telling young girls about periods.

One local agitator explained what the Collier County book vanishing act was all about, as reported by Ryan Arbogast for NBC-2

“They’re Just requiring school districts to not indoctrinate our kids on things that our sexually inappropriate,” added Keith Flaugh, of the grassroots political organization Florida Citizens Alliance. “I often say, to folks that call it book banning, so … are you ok with prohibiting guns and drugs in schools? The Role of the school districts is to provide a safe environment.”

So what books did Collier County find as dangerous as guns and drugs? The list is long, but PEN America is sharing it; here are some highlights. 

Some of the usuals are here-- Steven King, Ellen Hopkins, Toni Morrison. But Ernest Hemmingway? Three are on the list, including The Sun Also Rises which I taught for years and while, yes, sex is obliquely (really obliquely) an idea in the book, digging out sexual content would be a hopeless quest. 

Dune Chronicles? Steve Martin's novel Shopgirl? One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest? 2001: A Space Odyssey-- I mean, seriously, Clarke is one of the most asexual authors in all of SF. 

Many Waters??!! The Madeline L'Engle second sequel to Wrinkle in Time is, like the rest of the series, soaked hard in religious ideas, but Many Waters has for sexual content some heavy flirting. Flowers for Algernon, also regularly taught and unsexy. The Once and Future King, T. H. Whites four-book Arthurian doorstop that is the basis for both Disney's Sword in the Stone and the musical Camelot and, again, not very sexy. 

Man in the Iron Mask, the final of Dumas's three Three Musketeers novels published in the mid-nineteenth century, when no literary characters ever had sex at all. This is one of several items on the list that lead me to suspect that, in the time honored tradition of non-readers, the compilers of the list skipped the book and watched a movie version instead.

And, believe it or not, both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, the two Ayn Rand cornerstones. Granted, I agree that nobody ever needs to read Atlas Shrugged ever, but if you feel so compelled, go ahead. Both books, other than presenting Rand's bizarro notions about romance and some very ungraphic depictions of what appears to be angry sex, these are not ban-worthy books. I mean, I deeply dislike them for their blundering prose and teenaged sociopathic egoism promotion, but I wouldn't ban them.

My point is this-- we can mock districts like Collier County and their scattershot book restriction lists, bur the important point is that they are not going to stop, ever. Appeasement will not stop them. They will not at some future point run out of steam and consider their work done. They will never run out of books to be offended by, and even as they go even too farther and allies step away from them, they will not see that as a signal to maybe cool it.

It will never stop until someone (or maybe a bunch of someones) stands up to them, gets between them and the power to keep culling books, and makes it stop. I sure hope you voted today. 

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