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From Banning Books to Burning Them, the Right Is Threatening Education

The cathedral silence of libraries is being replaced with the sound of furious screaming and the smell of burned pages.

A person holds Art Spiegelman's award-winning 1986 graphic novel on the Holocaust, Maus, which has recently been banned by a school board in Tennessee.

If you walk into my apartment with the right kind of eyes, the first thing you’ll notice is the books. Shelved walls of them, floor to ceiling, organized by topic until the esoteric nature of the collection has a study on artificial intelligence wedged in next to a history of the internet, because the subjects are kissing cousins and I only have so much space.

My grandfather’s beloved John Toland collection is up there, along with his life-long study of the Kennedy clan. Every war, and every president, is represented, with special emphasis on all things Vietnam, for my father. Hunter Thompson has a shelf, as does Charles Bukowski. There are Langston Hughes poetry anthologies and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and the collected lyrics of Robert Hunter.

Dotting the shelves are trinkets I call treasure — an old pair of my daughter’s ballet shoes, tiny and precious beside a snapshot of my mother. A compass, an earring that belonged to a girl I used to belong to long ago, a pocket-sized Constitution and Bill of Rights serving as doormat to the comedy section (too soon?), all little pieces of my passage through time like garnets sifted from sand. It is a shrine to my tiny life, and the meaning of life is books.

In my bedroom, a small bookcase with a few specific titles — Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States next to Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned next to a signed copy of Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. Over by the door? A stack of books waiting to be translated into the big collection; this might take years, because it means I’ll either have to donate books to make space, which I don’t want, or put in more shelves, for which there is no space. In the corner? Another stack, neatly made with a candle on top as if to say, “I am not a mess. I am decoration.” And it’s true.

The Japanese have a word for this sweet, gentle, intellectual form of hoarding: tsundoku. Roughly translated, it is the act of “letting reading materials pile up without reading them.” Broadly speaking, tsundoku is the recognition that the mere presence of books brings great happiness, and more than that, an excited sense of hope: Maybe someday I will have time to read all this, and oh, what wonders will I learn then?

“It turns out that the smell of old books is due to the organic materials in books (like cellulose from wood pulp) reacting with light, heat and water, and over time releasing volatile organic compounds or VOCs,” explains McGill University’s Ada McVean. “What VOCs are released depends on how the book was made and stored, but common scents are toluene or ethylbenzene, which smell sweet, benzaldehyde or furfural, which smell almond-like, or vanillin, which smells like — you guessed it — vanilla.”

The cathedral silence of books in a library, the smell of wise age bound in old leather, is being replaced with the sound of furious screaming and the awful scent of burning pages. In towns across the country, the Trump-bound conservative movement has latched on to a fiction built around false ideas about critical race theory — which isn’t being taught anywhere in the public schools — that is inspiring a purge of books that might make white children deal with their nation’s past, or help them deal with their own future as an LGBTQ+ person of great and everlasting value. Parents and school board members are being targeted, harassed and threatened by a right wing bent on exploiting already-simmering angst over children and schools in the age of COVID.

“Authoritarianism and education now inform each other as the Republican Party in numerous states mobilizes education as a vehicle for white supremacy, pedagogical repression, excision and support for curricula defined by an allegiance to unbridled anti-intellectualism and a brutal policy of racial exclusion,” writes Henry A. Giroux for Truthout. “Republican legislators now use the law to turn public education into white nationalist factories and spaces of indoctrination and conformity. Republican state legislators have put policies into place that erase and whitewash history, and attack any reference to race, diversity and equity while also deskilling teachers and undermining their attempts to exercise control over their teaching, knowledge and the curriculum.”

There are few acts more ferociously ugly than the burning of a book, yet the trend has been growing right along with the swelling right-wing rage being primed by Trump and his people. The very idea that fire can murder an idea is insulting, and more than a little frightening: Given enough will, and enough fire, enough books can be destroyed to make their existence void. It has happened before, in the great library conflagrations of the Dark Ages after Rome fell. Only the concerted efforts of monks in their Irish monasteries — copying texts, copying texts, always copying texts — saved the literature and philosophy of classical Western society from itself.

A lot of the noise is happening on television, in the spaces where people like Ted Cruz operate… but the action is at the school board meeting, the town hall meeting, the very local gatherings were most of the governing of this country takes place. This isn’t happening in some far-off conference room in Washington, D.C.; this is down the block.

The book banners and burners hit the process like a wave of shock troops, overwhelming the normally staid procedures and scaring the hell out of everyone. It is time to push back.

This could be happening in your town. If it is, go to town meetings in numbers too large to ignore and bring a countervailing sense of order and fairness to the proceedings. Make sure your children have access to the books being burned and banned, and explain to them how an ugly act can spread very much like fire itself. It must be confronted and doused before the damage becomes too extreme.

When you burn a book, you do me harm. When you ban a book, you harm us all and look foolish in the process. This must be stopped, and we must be the ones to stop it. Bullies are exactly as strong as you allow them to be. Push back hard enough, and they tend to wilt and scatter. I read that in a book once, and tried it out for real. It worked.

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