Our Country is Filled with Problems; Reading Too Many Books Isn’t One of Them
The piece below is about banned books, which I feel so strongly about that I’ve decided to give away free physical copies of banned books. If you come by The Painted Porch today from 2-6pm or on February 19 from 10am-2pm, we’ll be giving away free copies of books such as Fahrenheit 451, Lawn Boy, and Out of Darkness.
The tragic irony of many books we are assigned in school is that we are far too young to understand what they really mean.
Like many public school kids, I was assigned Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in high school. I remembered the book as a warning against totalitarian censorship by the government. It was only later, re-reading it as an adult, that I realized Bradbury—who had written the book on purchased time at a library typewriter—was depicting something much more insidious.
As Captain Beatty explains to Montag, who had begun to doubt his terrible profession, censorship was what the people wanted. This horrendous burning of books hadn’t been forced on them by a tyrant. They had chosen this.
“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo,” he says, using terms that today would render the book politically incorrect, if not entirely canceled. “Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping. Burn the book.”
Bradbury’s message is a much more salient warning to modern Americans than many of us are ready for upon first reading. America is, and always has been, in less danger of top-down Chinese or Soviet style suppression and much more vulnerable to short sighted or even well-intentioned democratic censorship.
I didn’t grasp this as a high schooler, but I can see it now. Because here we are in 2022 where book banning is not only popular with state legislatures and local school boards, but a pastor in Tennessee held a literal book burning, which featured worshippers willingly tossing books into a bonfire that appears to reach ten or fifteen feet in the air.
Depending on where you live, this might all seem very distant. As a writer and bookseller in rural Texas, it hits closer to home for me. Interestingly, Marcus Aurelius—who I write about often—makes an appearance in Fahrenheit 451. “Wasn’t he a European,” Montag’s wife asks. “Wasn’t he a radical?” Nobody knew…like today, people were willing to burn a book because of what they thought might be in it, or because of what someone else said was in it.
The high school my sons will go to has been in the news for challenging a book called Out of Darkness, about segregation in a Texas oil town in the 1930s. More comically, another parent angrily protested an example of gay sex from a book called Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison at one of our school board meetings in September…but as the school librarian later pointed out, the school doesn’t even carry that book. The mother had confused it with another book literally about a boy who mows lawns. Just the other day, a man came into our bookstore snarling about all our “liberal” and “woke” books and our Google reviews have been briganded by anti-maskers and COVID-deniers.
America has many problems. Reading too many books is not one of them. In fact, I would argue that our problems stem from the exact opposite. We spend too much time online. We watch too much real-time (partisan) news. We have a poor understanding of history and our founding principles. We say experience is a great teacher and neglect the hard won experiences of the people who came before us and did us the service of writing that all down.
As a lifelong autodidact, I’ve been known to mispronounce many words that I had never heard outside the pages of a book. I always smile when I see someone doing the same thing—there goes a reader, I think. When Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene decried Nancy Pelosi’s “Gazpacho Police,” I knew that was a very different kind of error—the kind that comes from someone who has not read a single book about the Nazi Party. In fact, when I look at her cruel mockery of school shooting victims, heinous anti-semitism and dangerous pandemic misinformation, I can’t escape thinking: This is what happens when people don’t read books at all.
I don’t mean to single her out. There are plenty of politicians on both sides of the aisle who very obviously don’t read—or read only things that confirm what they already believe.
In our world, it seems, reading and studying has become almost a revolutionary act.
In Bradbury’s world, Montag strikes back against the regime simply by memorizing passages from books in order to protect and preserve them. As my wife and bookstore partner Samantha reminded me, to sit by while the government or your fellow citizens ban books is to endorse it. Each of us has an obligation to push back against the anti-intellectual bent of our time—whether it comes from the right or the left. When a book is banned or attacked—whether because it contains Critical Race Theory or because Critical Race Theorists are attempting to cancel the author—read it! As Stephen King has said, “Don’t spend time waving signs or carrying petitions around the neighborhood. Instead, run, don’t walk, to the nearest nonschool library or to the local bookstore and get whatever it was that they banned. Read whatever they’re trying to keep out of your eyes and your brain, because that’s exactly what you need to know.”
In a time of misinformation and disinformation, that quote might not always be right but directionally the argument is good. We shouldn’t insulate our kids from uncomfortable ideas, we should expose our kids to them and encourage them to engage with that discomfort. Moreover, we have to model the lifelong pursuit of knowledge in our own reading habits as adults, if for no other reason than so we can be their guides. We certainly can’t leave their fate in the hands of school board members and local elected officials who fear what might happen to a young person given free reign in a library.
The good news is that these people have less control over us than they once did. In the digital world, books are more plentiful than ever. It’s harder to truly suppress important perspectives. I am proud to have called in a favor with the folks at Scribd, a subscription service for ebooks and audiobooks, to make a number of these “banned” books accessible to anyone who wants them. They’ve also helped donate thousands of copies of books like Not My Idea by Anastasia Higginbotham, King and the Dragon Flies by Kacen Callender, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and New Kid by Jerry Craft, among others, to give away to students in my local community (as a result, one small publisher told me they’re having to print extra copies of some banned titles).
In big letters on our front window, we have stenciled the words “Good Things Happen In Bookstores.” But really, good things happen anywhere books are plentiful—even offensive or strange or uncomfortable books.
The converse is also true, as the playwright Heinrich Heine tragically predicted of his German homeland. “Wherever they burn books,” he warned, “they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”