By Linda Stamato
Across the nation, folks are using the power of the state to limit access to books, pressuring libraries to take books out of circulation.
Indeed, removing books from libraries has nearly doubled since 2021! And school boards continue to face demands to remove certain books from classroom reading and discussion.
This is what we’ve come to in polarized America.
As we approach National Library Week (April 23-29, 2023), we need to counterpunch. Celebrate the buildings that provide access to books, of course. But also resist limits being placed on our right to read them and to alter their content.
LIBRARIES AND SOCIETY
In Texas, we’re learning that book banning is causing public libraries to close rather than deal with the fights between those who advocate bans and those who seek to prevent them.
We’re talking about libraries!
Libraries that provide access to books that can brighten lives, lift spirits, widen horizons, prompt dreams, imagine futures, offer hope and comfort, mystify, challenge, astound, motivate; books that promote civility and cement democracy. Books that educate by answering and raising questions. Books that relay history and provide instruction. And, of course, books that entertain.
It’s time to reflect on this: Societies that limit freedom reinforce control by choosing what people are allowed read.
No wonder it feels like we’re living in Fahrenheit 451, the devastating and unrelenting novel in which books are forbidden as a means for government control. George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind as well, especially considering actions of those who find history “uncomfortable” or not consistent with their preferred narrative, who try to “control the past in order to control the future.”
Ironically, these books frequently were banned with excuses about offensive language and resentment over different levels of intellect, which supposedly made people feel bad.
Fahrenheit was front and center in Morristown some years ago, when the community read the book together and discussed it in a community exercise hosted by my local library, The Joint Free Public Library of Morristown and Morris Township.
We might consider returning to it, again, possibly, with the embrace of the public library that has been providing library services since 1792.
Perhaps Fahrenheit 451 will surface as one of the books the National Education Association will offer this summer in its effort to “Inspire a Love of Reading.” Meredith Barnes, spokesperson for the state chapter, the NJEA, has this to say about “Read Across New Jersey”:
Reading ignites imagination and nourishes a child’s creativity and curiosity and inspires a passion for lifelong learning. Books can also challenge, teach important lessons, reveal new worlds and enrich our understanding of both ourselves and others.
The NJEA has partnered with several colleges and universities where books, chosen for all grade levels, also have been recorded by students, and videos available for families provide a way to teach children how to read by following along.
One of those partnerships is with Rutgers University. This program for schools in New Jersey, via various incentives and support, encourages K-12 students to make time for summer reading and make sure resources are available, including in public libraries, to “help make adventure happen.”
CHANGING THE CLASSICS
So, while autocrats burn books and dictators prohibit their reading, and some segments of politicized America continue their assault on certain books, many in this country still embrace books and encourage reading, and stand up for books that are challenged — in whole and in parts.
Certain classics have been challenged in recent days, with efforts to remove disturbing or offensive language in works by Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, Mark Twain and “Dr. Seuss,” among others. These moves have seen vigorous support and opposition.
To my mind, it’s the original text that wins the day because, if it doesn’t, we scrub away the context in which the books were written, the values of the time, and what the commercial and cultural powers of the day found acceptable.
These works are part of the historical record of our journey toward enlightenment. We can provide explanations, contextualize and footnote. But censor? Ban? Purge?
No. Instead, educate.
Censorship cannot fix history and if we try to do that, we conceal or erase our history, making it harder to reckon with. Language and society change constantly. Facing the challenges that the past presents to the future can’t be done if we don’t know it.
And we certainly do not want to encourage an ideologically slanted vision of what should be learned, even felt, about American culture, society, and history.
Ignorance is the enemy of democracy and it surfaces in many forms and guises, including attempts to place limits on what can be known. The best remedy is free access to books, not censorship or alteration of the written and published word.
We must cherish and support our nation’s free public libraries, and enthusiastically support access to books — during National Library Week, and every week.
Linda Stamato is the Co-Director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. She is a Faculty Fellow there as well. Active in the Morristown community, she serves on the trustee board of the Morristown and Morris Township Library Foundation and is a commissioner on the Morristown Parking Authority.
Opinions expressed in commentaries are the authors’, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.