Worth Reading

I am a promiscuous reader. I will read anything, anywhere, any time, with any one.

Ever since I was a little girl, reading was both an escape from and an expansion of my mind. I’d spend countless summer hours on a couch, lounge chair–even floating in a pool–reading books. One of the few times I remember being envious of another person was when I went to a friend’s house and saw these amazing books her father had gotten her about all these different visual artists. I threw myself on the floor and started reading them. She looked at me like I was insane. Her father said, “At least someone appreciates these books.”

I do appreciate books. I love the way they feel, the way they smell, the way their pages ripple when they’re new and curl when they’re old. I love books with straight spines and books with broken spines. I love books that are pristine and ones that have been written in. Walking into a bookstore is like walking into a palace. I want nothing more than a house full of bookshelves. If I was a dragon, I’d hoard books.

I also read multiple books at a time. I have an account on Goodreads, and my friends will sometimes notice that I seem to read nothing for two months and then read three books in the third month. Untrue. I read all three books at the same time, and finish them all the third month. My latest reads were Mary Beard’s Women and Power, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, and and Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set the Dark on Fire. My account says I have 28 books I’m currently reading, 825 I want to read, and 313 I’ve read. As I’m 50 years old now, I better start reading at double speed if I want to get through that list.

Who am I kidding? I’ll never get through that list, because I’m going to keep adding to it. As it stands now, in my latest journal I’ve written the titles of books I need to add: The Devil and the White City, In Cold Blood, Just Mercy, We Should Hang Out Sometime, How the Word is Passed, Killers of the Flower Moon, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, Nickel and Dimed, All Over But the Shoutin’, The Anthropocene Reviewed, Crying in H Mart, Just Kids, Escape, Man’s Search for Meaning, The World is Flat, Running Out of Hatred, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and Dear Martin. Those are just nonfiction book titles I picked up from a Facebook thread about readings for Advanced Placement Language and Composition. I believe they’re all nonfiction, but I have no idea. If a teacher or librarian recommends them, they go on my list.

Yes. I put books on my list that are recommended by teachers and librarians I don’t know. Why? Because teachers and librarians, as a whole, are always in search of books that are well-written, engaging, challenging, thought-provoking, accessible, and require some level of critical thinking. Every English teacher I know thinks long and hard about 100% of the reading they assign. They are, predominantly, people like me who love reading, love books, love discussing ideas. They do not choose books that indoctrinate. They do not choose books that they believe convey infallible truths. They choose books that spark thought and discussion, which is why it pains me to my soul when someone calls to ban a book assigned by a teacher.

There is no book published that does not have some value–even if that book serves as a negative example. Though I’m a voracious reader, I haven’t finished every book I’ve read. Some aren’t worth it; some just come along at the wrong time. But if a book is being assigned in a school, it’s been vetted. Its purpose is usually to spark some kind of critical thinking, reading, or writing skill. Contrary to some people’s assertions, teachers do not always choose books they agree with. I have often assigned essays that go against some of my belief systems. Why? Because how can I address an issue if I don’t understand all sides of it? How can I have a conversation about something if I haven’t heard all the points? How can I expect my (high school) students to go out into a world of conspiracy theories, cancel culture, and intellectual discord if I do not teach them to navigate the process of figuring out what they think and why?

Do I believe that all books are appropriate for all children at all age levels? Of course not. Do I believe that, if a parent truly takes exception to a book because it runs contrary to their religious or moral beliefs, they should be allowed to request an alternate reading? Yes, and I know for a fact that teachers often have back-up books the student can substitute. In college, I always gave my students a choice of texts, especially if some of them included disturbing imagery. Do I believe that it is my responsibility, as a teacher, to give a “trigger warning” to even my adult college students if we are reading a book or story with a potentially unsettling element? Yes, and I have absolutely done so when I taught a class on fairy tales, because those Grimm Brothers were really . . . grim. But do I believe that one parent’s objection, one student’s adverse experience, or one particular perspective outweighs my teacherly judgement regarding a book that I feel is a valuable read? That’s a hard no.

Mark Twain said, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” Just as toothless babies should not be given a hunk of steak, not every child should be given the same book. Every parent has a right to protect their own child–but they do not have the right to deny other people exposure to stories and ideas.

As a parent, I understand the urge to protect our children from things we believe will disturb them. When I read The Hunger Games around the same time that many of my older daughter’s friends were also reading it in middle school, I was wary of getting her the book. She is a truly sensitive heart–she wouldn’t walk into a Party City from August through Halloween because the costumes terrified her–and I thought she’d be overly upset by the scenes of children killing each other.

Then one day she got into the car with her new, middle-school children’s bible speaking about a “the part where they cut up the lady into twelve pieces.” She was in fifth grade. My younger daughter was in third. At the time, I was not particularly well-versed in the Bible. The Old Testament was not my jam–it was one of the books I had not finished reading. I had gotten through Genesis and Exodus, lost my way in Leviticus and then mostly stuck with listening to the readings at Mass and focusing on the New Testament.

It turns out my daughter was referring to the story of “The Levite and the Concubine” in the Book of Judges. No cycle of readings in the Catholic Church reads that one in Sunday masses. It is supposed to detail a time in the Judaic world when things had become so depraved and violent that the people called for a King to provide some level of order, whereas before they had only had temporary leaders. So this truly horrible story is presented in the Old Testament as the lowest of the low, the worst of the worst–but that’s not how my daughter heard it. Why? Because it wasn’t taught. Some kids just found it, as kids do, out of context, with no lesson and no explanation. They then told all their classmates about it, and my daughter got the story third-hand. I then had to research it, read it, figure it all out, and help her process it.

Did I call for the Bible to be banned from the Catholic school? Of course not. Do I think the teachers had any idea the kids would find that particular reading in that particular book? No. We always underestimate the ability of children to find the most troubling parts of any material and look at them with pinpoint laser focus.

This is one of many reasons why, if reading is actually assigned by a teacher, it’s infinitely better for all of us than letting kids find it for themselves–which the kids will absolutely do. If a teacher assigns reading, they do so out of expertise, experience, and knowledge of a child’s age group. Kids just find stuff. Teachers truly think about the books they choose. Kids stumble into things blindly–or are led to them by equally blind peers. Teachers have entire lesson plans made around their choices. Kids just talk to other kids about what they’ve read with absolutely no context, often to just get attention. Teachers know the purpose the reading is serving in their class. Kids do not have a purpose for spreading information that is sure to distress, scandalize, or titillate others. Teachers will plan how they’ll want to handle the delicate issues in a text. Kids will just put them on blast. Above all, teachers will have a thoroughly reasoned response ready to give any parent who questions their thinking behind the choice of assignment. Kids . . . well, they’ll just say they found it somewhere and probably blame someone for giving it to them.

And here’s is the root of the banning books problem: a child is far more likely to try to get their hands on a banned book, especially at a certain age. Children universally loathe books they are assigned to read. Even a book they would normally pick up and love if they were on their own becomes an onerous chore when it’s a school assignment. My kids read Percy Jackson and the Olympians in one of their middle school classes. That book is a middle-school-reader sensation! But oh, the complaining when suddenly it became part of an assignment. It’s like assigning a book actually ruins the book. In contrast, banning it makes it more desirable.

So how about this, as a way of dealing with books assigned in schools or chosen for school libraries?

  1. Trust teachers and librarians. This is what they do. This is what they trained for. If they are untrained or not qualified for their job, that is a very different fight than banning a book.
  2. If you’re truly worried about an assigned reading or something your child took out of the school library, read the book before your child does.
  3. If there’s no time for that, read the book with your child, just like you would watch a television show with him or her. Use it as an opportunity to connect with and guide them. My grandmother read my college anthropology books. Ostensibly it was because she was getting an education through me, but boy did we have some conversations about what I was learning. Even as a young adult, my parents never shied away from being part of my intellectual life. I’m grateful for it.
  4. If you do not do either of these things, and something comes up because of the book, engage your child in conversation. Know that this is going to do more for their intellectual development than trying to protect them from every little thing you think might be harmful.
  5. Know that, if there is a book assigned in school, it is written about something that’s out there in the world, and your child will receive far more harmful, distorted, indoctrinating, and dangerous ideas on social media than they will from their teacher or the book itself. Even if children don’t have a social media account, some their friends certainly. do–and just as some student pointed out the story of the Levite and the Concubine to my child, one of your child’s friends will expose him or her to this other thing. Reading a book in school will at least give kids the time and space to think, evaluate, and measure the ideas rather than absorbing them with a dopamine hit–and without your knowledge.

My friends, teachers and librarians are not the enemy. Books are not the enemy; readers are not the enemy; neither are writers. The enemy is pride, ignorance, isolation, fear, and anger–all of which are to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual, the motives behind calls to ban books. We should not look away from the things that trouble us; we should face them head-on. The truest way to protect our children is not to shield them from every idea or topic we disagree with. It’s letting them come into contact with them while we’re still there to guide them, talk with them, and help them critically think about what they’re reading. That is what our teachers and librarians are trying to do. We need to stop making it harder for them. We need to take an active part in our children’s education by reading with them, not denying them access to books–because whatever we try to prevent will make them want it more, and our children will get it from sources far less invested in our children’s well-being and intellectual development than the teachers and librarians in their schools. We’re all in this together. Let’s act like it.

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