I have a theory of learning, based largely on my own experience, that goes somthing like this: Elementary school taught me how to read. High school taught me how to think critically about what I read. College taught me how use those skills to learn. It seems ironic, but after passing through sixteen years of schooling, I was finally ready to learn. And that is what I have tried to do ever since. I graduated from college in 1994. In 1996 I began keeping a list of books that I read. In the 26+ years that I’ve maintained that list, I’ve read 1,135 books. Thanks to my elementary school education, I was able to read those books in the first place. Thanks to high school, I was able to think critically about what I read. And thanks to college, I’ve managed to learn something new from every single book I’ve read since.
The news lately contains reports of increased book banning across the country. My critical eye warns me that it is hard to say if such an increase is really happening, or just being reported more. A recent example: a school board in Tennessee banning the book Maus by Art Spiegelman. From what I can tell, the book was banned because of the swear words it contained. The argument from one of the school board members was that a student using such language in the school would be up for disciplanary action, therefore, why have a book in the library that uses this language?
The critical thinking I learned in high school has some objections to this argument, but others writing about the book ban have covered those objections exhaustively. I want to take a different approach to looking at this trend in book banning, a kind of alternate history, if you will.
I am the product of public libraries and public school systems. The first library I was ever introduced to was the Franklin Township Library in Somerset, New Jersey. I was five or six years old. My mom took me, as I recall, and I was amazed by all the books they had. My mom had told me that books were a way to explore just about anything. I landed on a copy of a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. The tagline on the book was “exploring our universe” and I was hooked. I checked that book out again, and again. It introduced me to astronomy, and more broadly, to science. I discovered a majesty in the idea that we were just one small planet in the larger universe. I discovered comfort in the idea of the scientific method: that you could learn new things from experimentation; that you could apply knowledge and reason to problem-solving. Of course, as a six year old, I didn’t think all of this at the time. But I recognize the sense of wonder it instilled in me. That one book set me on a path that led me to where I am today. What success I have had in school, in life, and in my career, has come from the ideas initially stirred in my by that book.
Now: what if that book had been banned?
The reason the book is banned doesn’t matter so much as the inability to access it. I’m not saying that the reason for the ban isn’t important, but from a practical standpoint of someone with the limited access and resources of a six-year old, the fact is that whatever the reason, I can’t get the book in my library.
It is possible that I would have stumbled upon some other book that stirred similar emotions and ideas within me. There had to be something already there inside me that made the book resonate with me to begin with. So it is possible that some other book would have done the trick. But book-banning is a slippery slope, and this is where the reason for the ban is important. If The Nine Planets had been banned because school board members objected to the message it presented to impressionable students–perhaps that the book described a creation of the universe that varied from a view held by the school board members–then it would make sense that other books that varied from this view might also find themselves on the banned book list. That would make it less likely that I would encounter the ideas that led to my success in life–at least at such an early age. Would I be the same person I am today if The Nine Planets had been banned?
There seeems to be concern among school boards that lean toward banning books that the messages in these books are so powerful that they will do some kind of permanent damage to students. That message could be something simple, like the use of swear words. It could be something more complex, like causing one to question how history has been taught, or reckoning with the past. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that swear words are everywhere these days, from the titles of books, to the pages of newspapers, to broadcast television, to meetings in the workplace. Instead, I want to look at my own experience.
I’m not one to use swear words. I don’t object to them out of any moral or prudish ground. There are two reasons I avoid using them: (1) it was how I was brought up, and (2) I enjoy the game of finding better ways to say the same thing without using swear words. Growing up, my parents made it clear to me that I shouldn’t use bad language, and to this day, I can’t use it around them, even when they use it themselves. But as I said, I am product of the public libraries. After we moved to Los Angeles, when I was in sixth grade, I began making regular visits the the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. There, I had access to books and I sampled everything. I read books on science, on history, on technology, psychology, even books on Gregg shorthand. I read fiction and that fiction sometimes contained swear words. I never felt put off by that. It never made me want to use swear words either. Indeed, the phase in my life when I swore most, was after hanging out with friends who thought it was fun to do it. So it was friends, not books or movies, that cajoled me for a short time into regular use of profanity.
Now: what if those friends had been banned?
Well, in all likelihood, I would not have gone through a short period (mostly 7th grade) where I swore like a sailor everywhere but in my house. That’s no big loss. In all likelihood, too, however, I would have missed out on the good parts of those friends, the camaraderie, the way friends point out your faults so you are aware of them and can improve, the building of social relationships, the fun we had. That is a big loss, and it seems to far outweight the swear words they encouraged me to use.
I attended a humanities magnet high public high school in Los Angeles. We read a lot of books during my three years there, and I suspect many of those books would be looked on sourly today by the school boards banning books like Maus. We read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which contained some graphic illustrations that we all laughed at. We read Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird in which a woman was raped with a bottle. We read plays involving incest (Oedipus Rex, Hamlet). Not only did we read them, but we had to write critical essys about them–we had to think about what we were reading. None of this did any harm to me that I am aware of. I didn’t read Breakfast of Champions and immediately begin doodling anatomy in my notebooks. I was a little startled by the scene in The Painted Bird but saw it for the verisimilitude that it was. I was bored by Oedipus Rex, but enjoyed Hamlet, although not as much as, say, Henry V. But these books and others became whetstones for critical thinking. Writing about them helped to sharpen my thoughts.
Now: what if those books had been banned?
I’m not sure a humanities magnet program can exist without such books, so the immediate impact is to destroy a program that taught me how to think critically and how to write well. Would I have done as well on my college entrance exams without such critical thinking? Without training in writing well? Would my college application essays have been as compelling? For that matter, even assuming I got into a college, would I have succeeded in the manner I did without that honed critical thinking and ability to write? Would my interests in reading have waned? Would I have tried writing fiction, as I did beginning in my junior year? Would I have sold any of what I wrote, as I ultimately did? And what of nonfiction? Would I have dared to write essays for magazines? What about this blog? Would it exist?
It is easy for a school board to ban a book. And then another. And then another. It is easy to make the argument that the books can be had elsewhere–just not in the school or town library–if you have the money to purchase it. It is easy to see book banning as an action with no real impact beyond the political message it is intended to convey to satisfy certain constituents. It is much more difficult to see how a student not having access to a book can impact the course of their life. After all, it’s just a book, right?
And yet, there are books that are the very anchor to billions of lives: The Bible, the Quran, the Vedas and the Upanishads to name just a few. These are books that impact lives every day. So who is to say that the real impact of banning The Nine Planets would be nothing more than a political message. In my case, this was the book from which my curiosity grew. This was the book that began to teach me how to think about the world. This was the book that started me on a path of reading for something beyond just entertainment. This was the book that made me a student who wanted to learn what was being taught and apply it beyond just a test. This was the book that inspired my desire to learn new things for as long as I possibly could. This was the book that has led me to read 1,135 books since leaving my formal education behind. This is the book that will keep me reading and learning until the end.
I ask again: what if that book had been banned?
Written on January 27 and February 9, 2022.
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