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: 

“He did a terrible thing and eliminating him would have left the world tidier. Or so goes the logic of the last fifty years of American justice.”

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: 

“We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have – arm yourselves!”

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: 

“They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.” (Letter to William T. Barry, August 4, 1822)

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: 

“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
Imagine that a good defense for everything that worries you today is a good book, shared with others and discussed openly. Let’s skip the memes and read. 

—Shellee

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?

Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance..”

—Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th U.S. President

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For Believing in Democracy

A wild and fantastic celebration of the adventures we find in books. The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles is one of the most instagrammed bookstores in the world.  
A plea to support local journalism and a primer on responding to censorship. For Banned Books Week in October, Book Riot focused on the “censorship that never gets reported.” They call this a quiet censorship: 
“A book that may be an essential addition to shelves never gets purchased because the person in charge of making said purchase bows to fear or intimidation or the possibility of either.”