The Read Scare of 2022: Who benefits from new books being censored and why does it matter? — The Skidmore News – Skidmore News
Conservative-driven book banning has seen a resurgence these past three months with new censorship debates popping up in schools, courts, and homes across the country. Book banning is not a new phenomenon nor is it a practice isolated to a single political party or ideology. This wave of censorship, however, has been particularly far-reaching in terms of its geographically expansive nature, the quantity of books banned, and the broader implications it has when it comes to banning books in 2022.
It started in a Tennessee school district when the education board removed the popular graphic novel Maus—a memoir about the Holocaust—from classrooms. They defended the decision claiming that “its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide” made it “too adult-oriented” for students. Schools and parent-led organizations across the country soon followed with their own calls for specific book bans to take place on various grounds—whether it was that they are too violent, too explicit, too radical, or too thematically heavy for kids to handle.
For instance, one popular parental advocacy group, “No Left Turn,” has recently challenged historian Howard Zinn’s national bestseller, A People’s History of the United States, and Margret Atwood’s widely acclaimed A Handmaid’s Tale from being taught in schools as they see these texts as tools to “indoctrinate students” to “radical ideology.” However, claims that these books are exposing students to an exaggerated side of history, only serve to deprive them of the ability to actually study the past in as unbiased a manner as possible. A People’s History of the United States for instance teaches history from the bottom up, emphasizing forgotten or ignored perspectives of individuals who don’t fit in the often very nationalist framing of American history. Just like any other history book, it is not meant to stand alone nor promote a single narrative of the past. Rather, it is meant to be read in conjunction with other perspectives in order to form a complex understanding of patterns and themes that emerge across time and place. Books similar to “A People’s History,” while they might make claims that deviate from the standard narrative of American history, are certainly not tools for indoctrination. They are necessary challenges to the dominant historical narratives and those that get to perpetuate them.
With many texts becoming available for access online, the effectiveness of modern book bans in the U.S. is also being challenged itself. This is especially true because of social media, where conversations around recent book bans have been able to cultivate greater public awareness around controversial titles. Technology has resulted in increased popularity and sales of banned titles. The heightened awareness around current bans has further been exploited by companies, especially bookstores, who have taken to commodify the genre of banned books. Displays of books highlighting controversial titles have appeared in stores everywhere (if they were not already there), raising public consciousness surrounding current contested titles. Although “banned book” displays raise greater awareness of the existence of important titles, one wonders if it is fair that there are people profiting from this wave of censorship.
Of course, there are still limitations to reading banned books for most people. For many, using physical copies of books is the preferred and sometimes only accessible method for obtaining particular titles, depending on whether or not a student has access to a computer and internet at home. The removal of certain books from free spaces like libraries and school shelves means that those that don’t have permission to read or can’t afford a certain title will be unable to read valuable pieces of literature due to public bans.
Literature, both controversial and neutral, offers individuals the opportunity to teach themselves something as much as it acts as a tool for teachers (in the broadest interpretation of the role) to educate others. It is core to the process of learning for it challenges the institutionalization of ideas. Literature is fluid—it grants readers a certain autonomy in their own education to develop beliefs and make observations on their own. Controversial books especially, which are often banned for their particularly thought-provoking content, challenge dominant narratives in history and society. By their nature, books facilitate a process of inquiry between readers and the world, something that one’s education should embody. Thus, by removing titles from schools, politicians and organizations that push for such bans are only failing to act in adherence with their responsibilities to the people they represent. By censoring books that deal with heavier themes or content deemed too explicit, parents and politicians are denying their responsibility to provide children and citizens the resources they need to actually educate themselves.
While it could be said that some parents and guardians advocating for the removal of controversial texts are genuinely acting on what they believe to be right, that kind of response says something larger about the process of literature becoming devalued in society today. People have become disconnected from the sheer power words have to make someone feel seen and to communicate truths about history and the world. Many now fear, rather than cherish, books and the curiosity they inspire.
Literature is an outlet for history. It is an essential way of historicizing and characterizing the past in recognizable ways. It is an outlet for truth. It is a means of exploring the world beyond what you can confront in your day-to-day life. It is a way to challenge your own beliefs and perspective and learn to cultivate empathy for others. Reading prevents people from getting stuck in echo chambers of the dominant beliefs being channeled into media, schools, etc. In his essay responding to recent book bans, author Viet Thanh Nguyen writes “books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question.” Books allow us to experience the necessary discomfort that’s essential for growth; Oscar Wilde once said, “the books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” Most importantly, books educate us about ourselves, and they educate us about those around us. They can make us feel understood and accepted in the times when we feel most alone. The book bans of 2022 have shown us is that we need to collectively redefine the importance of all kinds of literature in our lives. No one should be robbed of the opportunity to read something that can make them feel seen.