The Latin word for book is liber. It is also the Latin word for "free," as in not a slave but a person who enjoys freedom (liberty). The word library means a home for books, a place of liberation, a sacred space, a sanctuary where we can seek information, find entertainment, explore critical thinking, cherish things which keep us human and free.
I grew up in the Larimer Avenue district of East Liberty, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a first generation Italian- American household. We were poor and shared a home with other generations. There were no books. But, a mere two blocks from my home, on the corner of Larimer Avenue and Station Street, there was a large, well-stocked, Carnegie Public Library "free to the public." For me, this library was an exotic land full of all kinds of treasures and adventures. In this oasis: I sailed with Sinbad the Sailor on unchartered seas, fighting weird creatures and visiting strange peoples ; I journeyed with Marco Polo to the court of the Great Khan; I investigated religions and societies other than my own; I got lost in the hieroglyphs and tombs of ancient Egypt; and I fell in love with Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, who astonished me with his super human ability to master languages and don disguises, one of which enabled him to travel to Mecca and perform the Haj without being detected and killed.
After two years of high school I entered seminary where the priest in charge of the library made me his assistant. In this capacity I held the keys to the stacks which housed the books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum which a Catholic was forbidden to read under pain of excommunication. For four years I devoured books banned for their dangerous ideas and, of course, for their prurient content â"€ hundreds of books, from Marx through Engels to Freud to Marquis de Sade and other deviants â"€ a grand education! In 1966, after I had left the seminary to study at the University of Chicago, the Catholic Church ended the list of prohibited books.
In light of my experience, my love for books and libraries is not just an abstract principled stand on the value of freedom of inquiry; it is based in the real power of books to enlighten, entertain, and liberate me. I do not take lightly any action designed to suppress access to books.
On Monday October 10, 2022, a crowd of more than 1000 people took over a school board meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, to protest books with LGBTQ+ themes that were on school reading lists. [ Link: Detroit Free Press, 30 October 2022, bit.ly/3WmPd4f ] According to the Guardian, most of the protestors were Muslim Arab Americans. [The Guardian, 16 October 2022, bit.ly/3DNcB3G ] This protest is noteworthy because the overwhelming number of complaints against books normally comes from various types of Christian groups.
Let's look at the record:
According to the American Library Association, the Harry Potter books, volume one published in 1997, by J.K. Rowling are the most challenged and banned book series of the 21st Century. [ South Florida Reporter, August 08, 2022; Toledo Library Blog, September 26, 2021 ] A book is challenged when any adult makes a complaint to a library or a school that the book in question should not be available to the general public or to specific groups in the general population. A book is considered banned when it is removed from general circulation. (Disclaimer: I have read the entire series, with pleasure, and gave the Potter books to my godsons.)
The reasons given for challenging the Potter books are: magic; witchcraft; anti-Christian; contradicts Biblical teachings; confuses children, they can't distinguish between fantasy and reality; and, my personal favorite, the magical incantations and rituals described in the books are authentic and work. This last complaint was made by a Catholic priest, Father Dan Reehil, pastor of St. Edward Church in Nashville, Tennessee, who banned the books from the school library because the curses and spells "are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text." [ABC News, Ella Torres, September 3, 2019, 9:50 A.M. ]
According to PEN America banned books report for 2022 released this October, the State of Texas banned the most books — 801 titles — followed by Florida and Pennsylvania. Most of the banned titles involved racial or sexual or LGBTQ+ issues: "The most banned titles include the groundbreaking work of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, along with best-selling books that have inspired feature films, television series, and a Broadway show. The list includes books that have been targeted for their LGBTQ+ content, their content related to race and racism, or their sexual contentor all three." [PEN America Report: https://bit.ly/3UfLELB]
Other books banned in USA school systems between July 01, 2021 and June 30, 2022: Night, Elie Wiesel, Pitt County Schools, North Carolina [2473 PEN Index]; Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck, Indian River County School District, Florida ; Bristow Public Schools, Oklahoma ; Birdville Independent School District, Texas ; The Kite Runner, Hosseini Khaled, Birdville and Fredericksburg Independent School Districts, Texas [985, 986], and many, many other established and contemporary masterpieces of literature, including these perennially banned titles: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; 1984 by George Orwell; and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. According to Writers House Services, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is historically the most banned book in U.S. schools, mostly because of the number of bans it received in the 70's and 80's.
It should be noted that given the content of the complaints made against these banned books the Christian Bible would itself qualify to be banned for violence, incest, self-harming, adultery, racial hatred, sexual deviations, and a host of other objections. Same would be true for the great masterpieces of world civilizations such as the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Bhagavad Gita, and of course, the Koran.
That censorship occurs is not new. Tyranny hates literacy. What concerns me is the curious alliance in our republic of the religiously righteous and cynical politicians in manipulating passions to suppress learning.
Once again, common sense eludes our body politic, and partisanship destroys any common ground for a productive conversation.
It is always easier to feel rage and rant than it is to think and talk with your children and their teachers to figure out what is best for all.
November 2022 © firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago; member of San Miguel PEN, MX, Writers in Prison Committee; president of Chicago Network JP; member of TOSOS Theatre Ensemble, NYC.