Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
November 7, 2021
For the Civic-Minded
I thought I had unlocked my superpower. When I learned to read, I participated in a program that required knocking on my neighbor’s doors. I read to them from my stapled packet of worksheets. I learned to love to read, but part of the superpower of this memory is how reading worked to connect to my community.
The efforts to ban books today are about limiting this power. They are a threat we have to take seriously.
News stories have included a list of 850 titles that a Texas State Representative wants to ban and a Virginia campaign ad featuring a “parent who wanted to remove Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ from schools because it gave her nearly college-age son nightmares.” These might be winning strategies of polarized partisanship. They are also threats to the health of our democracy.
The first book I recall provoking my ideas of our “public mind” was Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. I read it in high school, and it still haunts how I think about justice today. In the forward for the book, Dave Eggers explains what Gary Gilmore, the main character represents:
Is a “tidier” world also a more just world? I don’t know. After reading this book, I thought I knew what I believed about the death penalty. Then someone I once knew ended up on death row in Texas. With every appeal, I wished him dead. So did I want justice or a tidier world? I’m still not sure.
Difficult questions, haunting problems, and uncomfortable realities are part of democratic life. Our books might be our best defense strategy.
In every librarian’s favorite episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor secures the doors behind him to block a hungry werewolf from a room full of people (Season 2, Episode 2, “Tooth and Claw”). Feeling safe for a moment and beginning to suspect they might also be trapped, the humans ask what to do next. David Tennant, playing The Doctor, answers:
They all start reading! They find the history of the beast stalking them and use what they learn to trap him. Another win for the human race!
If you’re not a librarian, you might know a more familiar quote from James Madison where he states why he supports schools and universities. He says they “throw that light over the public mind.” That quote also represents a defense strategy:
Give me a good book AND give me liberty! Want to fight back with a Toni Morrison title? The New York Times has a great guide with a recommendation if you “have a short attention span” or “love Marvel, mythology, and origin stories.” I also think we can make the next newsletter a reading list of our own.
What titles have you recently read that put the power and light to defend democracy into your hands? Is there a title that worked for you the way I described Executioner’s Song? If there’s a book you’re thinking about, reply to this email and tell me about it.
One more thought to galvanize this effort to turn more pages… In a 1953 speech, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas told the audience:
For Your Reading List
Election results kept the political punditry busy this week. One idea that captured my attention was the suggestion that fear of Critical Race Theory delivered “devastating” results for the Democratic Party. I can’t escape the question whenever I hear the latest take on results in Virginia:
Is there something to the fight against Critical Race Theory that needs to be taken more seriously?
- Look at how it started. In June, New Yorker Magazine published something like an “origin story”: “How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory.” Vox offered an excellent explainer piece at about the same time, “What the hysteria over critical race theory is really all about.“
- Recognize the potential it has in local politics. This summer, The Boston Globe reported, “The GOP-led hysteria over antiracist education has arrived in Massachusetts.” More recently, Karen Attiah published an op-ed in The Washington Post, “Why books have become a battlefield in Texas.” She sees blueprint, “a response to the growing power that marginalized people have demonstrated recently in our public discourse.”
- If it all feels a little upside down and backward to you, know you’re not alone. First, spend some time with Ibram X. Kendi’s thoughts on the debate, “The Second Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” Then check out the “Opportunities for Activism” in a post from Wired.
“Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance..”
—Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th U.S. President
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