Children are curious, not fragile. Books teach them to think.


Editorials and other opinion content provide insights into issues important to our community and are independent of the work of our newsroom reporters.


A growing number of state legislatures are banning books from school libraries and classrooms.

Associated Press

My family had an “open shelf” rule. This meant that my brother and I had the right to read anything, however inappropriate or beyond our years. We never had to ask.

I spent hours of my childhood browsing through the volumes in my father’s libraries. Stories, thrillers, science fiction, books on politics and culture – it was all accessible to me.

I keep thinking about it as more and more school districts take part in what promises to be an open war against reading. According to “Bannid in the USA,” a report released by writers organization PEN America in April, nearly 1,600 individual books were banned in 26 states between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.

Among the disputed or removed titles are “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” by Roxane Gay and “Far From the Tree by Robin Benway. “These are all works of lasting literary value that deal with issues of identity, race and family – in other words, exactly the kind of books students should be reading now.

While contestation of books and curricula is not new to the United States, what we face today is different. Of the current bans, PEN notes, “41 percent (644 individual bans) are related to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books from schools.” Many of these challenges are not caused by parents or even school boards. It is the power of the state. This represents, according to PEN, “an unprecedented change”.

I take it for granted that books are good for us. Countless studies have reinforced what many recognize from experience: literature encourages compassion. As Jane Smiley wrote ten years ago in The New York Times: “Reading fiction is and always has been a practice of empathy – learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives, learning to understand how the views of others reflect their experiences.”

At the same time, reading isn’t just about learning how to be a better person. Books are not vegetables, after all. We don’t read them for the same reasons we take vitamins or eat healthy meals. Part of the fun of reading – its core fiber, if you will – is how it can upset us, our preconceptions and easy pieties. Part of what books do is show us who we are or could become.

As a youngster, often the more inappropriate or overwhelming a book was, the more intensely I was drawn to it. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by adults willing to let me find my own level, not just at home, but also at school. In ninth grade, the school librarian, who already knew me as an early reader, didn’t stop me from pulling out “War and Peace,” which I kept for a week before returning it, unread.

It was not only the reading, in other words, that was important, but also the permission to do so widely, indiscriminately. This freedom left me with a feeling of respect, of affirmation. And that led me, in my early teens, to “inappropriate” writers who, in the end, couldn’t have been more appropriate: among them Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, Sam Greenlee and Philip Roth.

Vonnegut taught me that the universe was absurd; Heller, this authority deserved to be ridiculed. Greenlee, in his novel “The Spook Who Sat By the Door”, exposed the hypocrisy of race in America. And Roth – well, maybe the best way to explain it is to say that in “Portnoy’s Complaint” he depicts the male adolescence, which I was experiencing then, in the most visceral and outrageous terms. .

Writers like these were a gateway to other authors and stories. Vonnegut led me to Samuel Beckett, Greenlee to James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. From Heller I moved on to Terry Southern and William Burroughs. And “Portnoy” prepared me for Erica Jong’s magnificent “Fear of Flying”.

Reading these books as I found them helped me deal with the complexities and contradictions of the adult world. More importantly, by thinking alongside their authors, I began to think for myself.

That’s of course what book banners object to, that readers might be swayed by ideas that lawmakers, parents, local neighbors don’t like.

PEN views the issue through the lens of the First Amendment, which is valid, especially given the actions of so many lawmakers and the effects on so many constituencies. But I don’t want to neglect that other goal – curiosity, self-knowledge, possibility, inquiry. Literature gives us the language by which we know ourselves.

But to do this, it must be available. It should stay on the shelves. Where would we be without inappropriate reading? Ask any reader and they will tell you: we would be lost.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer for Los Angeles Times Opinion.

© 2022 Los Angeles Times


This story was originally published July 21, 2022 2:23 p.m.

About Herbert L. Leonard

Check Also

The Best Lesser-Known Fantasy Books to Read During the Holidays

Many players are also lovers of literature, and more specifically of the fantasy genre. And …