When I think of book burnings, images come to mind: Nazis burning “anti-German” publications during the Holocaust, teenagers burning Beatles records after John Lennon said his band was more popular than God, and the book “Fahrenheit 451.”
This week’s image showing Republican Missouri state Sens. Nick Schroer and Bill Eigel using flamethrowers on a stack of cardboard boxes turned my stomach. The question on everyone’s mind, what was he burning? Boxes or books? Eigel quickly answered in a statement to The Star :
“In the video, I am taking a flamethrower to cardboard boxes representing what I am going to do to the leftist policies and RINO corruption of the Jeff City swamp. But let’s be clear, you bring those woke pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too — on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.”
“Let’s be clear,” Eigel, who is running to be the next Missouri governor, has no qualms about being associated with extreme images.
In that story, state House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat who also is running for governor, decried the image and Eigel’s sentiment. Initial comments on X, formerly known as Twitter, ran severely against the burning. They pilloried the senators.
Surprising. Maybe conservatives really have left X and joined Truth Social.
Wait. He was burning boxes, not books, right?
But he would. He said he would. On the front lawn of the governor’s mansion, presumably after he moves in.
‘Fahrenheit 451,’ where fire is censorship
Which brings me back to “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. It’s a cautionary tale set in a dystopian future where firemen no longer put out fires. They start them by burning books, any books they find. It’s a future where TV is king and where reading books is outlawed. The law hopes to prevent the spread of any ideas that run counter to what leaders tell people to think.
It purports that ideas not supported or permitted by society leaders will brainwash people.
Let’s look at that quote from Eigel again:
“But let’s be clear, you bring those woke pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too — on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.”
Eigel thinks “woke” books will brainwash children. He isn’t alone. The American Library Association gets a lot of requests to ban books every year. It’s called a “challenge,” and the numbers are startling:
In 2022, 1,269 people filed demands to censor library books and resources, the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago.
A record 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship, a 38% increase from the 1,858 unique titles targeted for censorship in 2021.
Of those titles, the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.
Of the reported book challenges, 58% targeted books and materials in school libraries, classroom libraries or school curricula; 41% of book challenges targeted materials in public libraries.
In new data released Wednesday documenting challenges in the first half of 2023, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles. The office reports, “The number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20% from the same reporting period in 2022, the year in which the highest number of book challenges occurred since ALA began compiling this data more than 20 years ago.”
Most of the challenges in the time period studied, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 2023, were about books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Book banning discussed in US Senate
More proof that book burns — er, bans — are in the news:
Last week, legislators heard from witnesses at a Senate committee hearing titled, “Book Bans: Examining How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature.” Witnesses included Max Eden, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education; Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois Secretary of State; Cameron Samuels, a student at Texas’ Brandeis University and Emily Knox, an an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The hearing began with a video that argued bans aren’t new and that comic books were the target in a 1954 hearing. Superman, anyone? The video also featured recent media clips and social media videos about bans.
“Let’s be clear, efforts to ban books are wrong, whether they come from the right or the left,” said Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator of Illinois who chairs the judiciary committee. He read a list of award-winning titles that had been banned at one time. Stunning.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “Maus.” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “A Raisin in the Sun.” “Brave New World. And most recently, a lot of titles about the LGBTQIA+ community.
The hearing raised issues, but no real solutions. Several senators interviewed the witnesses, the last two being Republicans. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley referenced so-called social media censorship at the government level — not really on topic here. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, in a heated exchange, grilled the witnesses over not having a concrete answer to his question over who has final say over what books are allowed. As the video ended, I doubted whether we’d ever find consensus over this issue. A week later, here come the librarians.
Librarians conference in Wichita
Beginning Wednesday, librarians, academics and people who care about books go to Wichita for the Association of Rural and Small Libraries conference.
Among the speakers and panelists will be Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, at the Town Hall on Intellectual Freedom on Thursday and a session on the First Amendment and book bans.
Caldwell-Stone, in an episode of the Library Leadership Podcast, said libraries are her sustenance: “I was an early reader. My mom was a single parent and just couldn’t provide the books I wanted to read. Libraries were there. I could go to the library, and I rode my little bicycle with its wicker basket and loaded up, and I discovered the world through libraries. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without libraries being in place — the librarians guiding me to books.”
I was an early reader, too, and a latchkey kid in Chicago. I loved reading books, and there were no books that were off-limits to me, as I recall.
I understand parents love and are concerned about their children. And, I agree with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said at the Senate committee meeting, “You have an obligation, as a parent, to lend your voice to the cause you think helps your children develop in the right way.”
But schools and libraries exist to help children, too. Most librarians love their jobs and want to help children learn about the world around them. That world includes people who don’t look like them and who don’t think the same way about things.
As Durbin said, “In the name of protecting students, we’re instead denying these students an opportunity to learn about different people and difficult subjects.”
Parents should be there to help kids with this opportunity. And if there is a book you have concerns about, don’t ban it. Talk to your kids about why you don’t think the book is proper. Have a hard conversation.
Burning and banning is the easy way out.