The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Sympathy for Book-Banning

February 5, 2009
Washington, DC

From the February 9 edition of California's Modesto Bee comes this headline: "School trustees in Newman ban book from classrooms."

The opening paragraph explains, "Orestimba High School sophomores who want to read Bless Me, Ultima, will have to check it out from the library after trustees voted to remove it from English classes."

It's so easy to make fun of people who ban books. "We're better-educated than they are. We probably make more money than they do," we might say. Everybody we know agrees with us. So why does it feel so unsatisfying?

On reflection, my new instinct is less to score points off some touchy parent than to get a Big Read into Stanislaus County as soon as possible. (This might get tricky, of course, considering that the local librarian voted with the majority.)

Fahrenheit 451 might make a timelier book choice than Anaya, but I can't help thinking that Newman needs books in the worst way right now. That's probably condescending and patronizing and superior of me, but I believe it.

If there were an NEA strike force that could roll into a town and put on impromptu uninvited Big Reads overnight, Stanislaus would top my target list. The key, I think, would be to do more listening than talking, at least at first, more joking than preaching. Maybe somebody would even take a swing at us, and help out with the sympathy vote. In the end, I can't help thinking that the book-banners and the civil libertarians might fight our way to a companionable draw. I saw it happen in Oklahoma -- where at first they were about ready to run me out of town for defending Steinbeck -- and I can see it happening in Stanislaus, too.

We have sensitivity training for racists. We have anger-management classes for bullies. Can't we at least imagine a way to engage book-banners that doesn't treat them like they're like moronic philistines instead of concerned parents? We're sure not making any converts by humiliating them.

Call me greedy, but a bunch of teenagers reading Anaya to scandalize their folks isn't enough for me. I want their parents, too. I want just one book-banner to stand up in a public forum and say, "My son wasn't reading before and now he is, so maybe this book can't be all bad." Never gonna happen? I don't buy it. Bring me that success story, and I'll shout it from the housetops.