Opinion: We are all invested in the freedom to read


Published: 08-13-2023 8:00 AM

Summer Lopez, chief of PEN America’s Free Expression programs, spoke about book banning at the Monadnock Summer Lyceum in Peterborough on August 6. This column is adapted from her remarks, with a focus on bans as inherently undemocratic.

I expect we all agree that books are powerful for children. They can open the mind to new ideas, new possibilities, and also offer a sense of belonging.

Children who encounter a story that is different than their own can build empathy and understanding, and be better prepared to live in a diverse democracy. And by seeing themselves reflected in a book, young people can know they are not alone, whatever their experiences and emotions, and whatever aspects of their life or identity they may be grappling with.

For some children, books can be a lifeline; even a lifesaver.

This is why we should not see book bans simply as a concern for parents and teachers, but for all of us invested in the next generation of Americans, of citizens. Because the freedom to read is essential to our democracy.

The movement to ban books is inherently undemocratic, inflicting restrictions on all students and families based on the preferences of a few and banning books based on the ideas they contain.

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And it is having multifaceted, harmful impacts: on the students who have a right to access a diverse range of stories and perspectives; on the educators and librarians who are operating in an increasingly punitive and threatening environment, unable to teach as they see fit; on the authors whose works are being targeted; and on parents who want to raise students in schools that remain open to curiosity, discovery, and the freedom to read.

Access to a diversity of books, ideas, stories, and perspectives is the basis of education in a democracy. Because in a democracy, ideas are not to be feared, but should be engaged with, considered, debated, challenged when necessary, and sometimes fought back against.

Even in the cases of ideas worth fighting — fascism, white nationalism – they must be understood first. Libraries across the U.S. have “Mein Kampf” on the shelf not because they espouse those beliefs, but because we know that hiding from the darkest aspects of humanity and history does not make them go away. In fact, it can imbue with them greater power.

Books with outdated language and racial stereotypes such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “Gone with the Wind” are also on library shelves, as they should be. The right approach is to *teach* these books; to offer context and a critical eye, not to deny access. Hiding the world from children does not serve them.

We also know that book banning rarely happens in a vacuum. We already see that this is part of a larger effort to constrain the educational space in the U.S., to extend the hand of government to bar certain ideas from classrooms and libraries, and particularly to silence conversations about U.S. history, and the voices of people of color and LGBTQ+ people.

At PEN America we defend the freedom to write globally. We advocate on behalf of writers who are harassed and put in prison around the world because their words were deemed a threat to those in power. And we know that book banning is an authoritarian tactic; a tool of tyrants. It’s one we associate with Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, and Putin’s Russia.

Last year, “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, based on his own family’s story, was banned in Tennessee. I wondered if PEN America had ever spoken about it being banned before, and in fact we had, after it was pulled from bookstores in Moscow in 2015. One of Putin’s tactics of repression and control has been to silence conversations about history that don’t fit his preferred narrative. He has put historians in prison for uncovering and telling the truth about the crimes of the Stalin era.

Much of what Governor Ron DeSantis has done in Florida, including the politicized takeover of the progressive, public liberal arts New College of Florida, follows the playbook of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who banned gender studies and drove the Central European University out of the country altogether.

And Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill bears a striking resemblance to the so-called “gay propaganda” law that has been in place in Russia since 2013. Hungary too has a similar law, and they just levied a hefty fine on a bookstore chain for selling a graphic novel with LGBTQ+ themes in its youth section.

Authoritarians silence the most vulnerable voices first so that you might get used to it, but it’s highly unlikely to stop there. And authoritarians go after books and writers because words and stories are powerful. They allow people to imagine a different, better world.

So it’s essential that we push back against big bans; that we speak out in defense even of controversial books. You might not be sure if you would ever share a particular book with your own child, and that’s your right to decide, but every other parent has the right to make the same decision.

And children have the right to experience the joy of discovering books for themselves. Books are powerful; words are powerful. They would not be targeted by authoritarians around the world if they were not. That’s why we all have to stand up for the freedom to read, the freedom to write, the freedom to learn. In our communities, and our nation as a whole.

New Hampshire gave us the phrase “live free or die,” and what could be more fundamental to freedom than the right to choose what ideas to read about, what stories to hear, what concepts we agree with or disagree with? And to know that one’s own story is worth telling.