A Library Shelf, a Reading Room – Now They Are Trenches Too*

*Editor’s note: On March 4, 2022, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

The fight against undesirable books in the New World began long before the United States appeared on the map of North America, in the 17th century, almost immediately after the first English colonists arrived. The Puritan government “canceled” William Pynchon’s pamphlet, “The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption Justification &C. Cleering It From Some Common Errors” in 1650. The Puritans ordered the book to be burned even before the Salem witch hunt began.

Suffice it to say, 370 years later, they are still loyal to tradition and actively bringing it back to life.

The scale of censorship is staggering. In the 2022-2023 school year, authorities prohibited and withdrew more than 3,362 book titles from schools, universities and public libraries in 40 states. It all began during the COVID-19 pandemic. School parent groups that fought for the restrictions morphed into organizations such as Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United. Largely thanks to their efforts, the growth of censorship in the U.S. in the past year has gone nuclear. Up by 33%.

A library shelf, a reading hall, a book depository — now those are also trenches where right-leaning and left-leaning Americans are fighting to cancel each other.

Conservatives, with no understanding of artistic merit, brand the classics as obscene. On the other side of the political spectrum, books are being called out by the American New Left, cancel culture and wokeism.

In the middle are the teachers and library workers who have increasingly become the scapegoats. In Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Virginia, those who continue to provide young readers with literary “contraband” in violation of the book bans face a $2,500 fine or a year in prison. The effect was intimidating; teachers have left states that are banning books. Others faced losing their jobs. But the main victims, of course, are the books.

Classic works have made it onto the blacklists: George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The reasons behind some of these bans is sometimes so convoluted that sometimes left-leaning Americans include books that decry racism among the books they want to block. Take “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, for example, a novel about a dark-skinned teenage girl who dreams of having white skin and blue eyes.

Of course, this has happened before. In the 1950s, in the heat of McCarthyism and the struggle against the red threat, libraries locked up “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” remained censored in the most democratic country in the world until the 1920s.

James Joyce and Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck were all considered disgraced and harmful writers. People blamed Ernest Hemingway for his overly dark portrayal of World War I’s grim realities. But those authors were young back then, just claiming their literary place. It is much worse today. Last August, teachers in Florida restricted their teaching of Shakespeare plays and literary works pursuant to state law.

To describe the depth of this folly, we need its best critic — Mark Twain. Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned immediately in Massachusetts after it was published in February 1885. The bans have again caught up with Twain today. People now claim that while “Huckleberry Finn” may be humorous, it is too racially insensitive, that it uses a racial profanity too often.

However, Twain responded in his own style to his critics then and their heirs today. “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read,” he said. Or over the man who’s banned from reading.

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About Artem Belov 83 Articles
Artem Belov is a TESOL-certified English teacher and a freelance translator (Russian>English and English>Russian) based in Australia but currently traveling abroad. He is working on a number of projects, including game localization. You can reach him at belov.g.artem@gmail.com

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