The house where I grew up 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 at will, by trial and error. 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 nothing new in the United States, the situation we face today is somewhat 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 others’ views reflect their experiences.”
The freedom to read 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. .
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. Distributed by content agency Tribune.