Bonfire of the Inanities

By Jeff Wing   |   October 3, 2023

“Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed to Repeat It.” This quaint bromide is periodically hauled out to remonstrate against ideas that seem determined to repeat some wanton mistake from the past. Book banning fits that description like a glove. There is in this country a newish state law on the books – HB 3979– that prohibits reading material that makes an individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” 

Banned Book Week this year is from October 1-7 and celebrates those literary tomes that have been targeted for the book chopping block. Book banning in the United States (of all places) has surged to its highest level in 20 years. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom “…tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. Most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.” It’s as if Gutenberg’s world-lifting achievement was about disseminating comfort, and not knowledge. I caught up with Library Services Manager Molly Wetta to get her thoughts on the growing practice of book banning. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.

Q. Do you see the censoring of books getting better, worse, or just holding steady over time?

A.I would say it has definitely intensified in terms of the numbers – and how organized the groups are today in challenging books. 

How do you mean? 

Beginning in 2016, we’ve seen organized calls from groups that have this objective – not in response to what their own children are reading, or concerns over an isolated incident, but targeted, strategic pushing back against public education, which has started to incorporate more historical fact about institutional racism, and then oftentimes sexual education in schools that is trying to maybe cover more topics than previous generations were exposed to. Topics like the racial history of our country, and then gender identity and sexuality are the most frequently cited reasons for challenging materials. 

Most people can name a book they detest for one reason or another, but they also broadly realize that removing written material from public access has grotesque historical antecedents. The term “book burning” suggests something reflexively negative to most people, and few would publicly declare: “I’m against all new ways of thinking.” And yet that unspoken sentiment seems to fuel the modern book purge. 

One of the tenets of library science is, “Every reader, their book – every book, their reader.” We want to make all materials, all ideas available within the constraints of our budget and our shelf space. So our collection is designed to represent a wide spectrum of ideas and perspectives, and every book should be able to find its reader. That does not mean that every book or DVD we have is going to appeal to everybody, and it shouldn’t – because we’re a diverse community with many different perspectives and ideas, and it’s good to encounter new ways of thinking, new ideas – even if you decide in the end that the idea isn’t for you, or that you don’t like it. That’s part of living.

Do you think there will always be eruptions of this sort, or do you believe that there will be some renaissance of common sense – that people will once again start to revere the very notion of the Idea itself, and the rich landscape of ideas ripe for exploration? 

I think it’ll always be cyclical. When I first became a librarian, it was kind of like, “…oh, Banned Books Week. How cute! Glad we’re past that.” But right now, it is very much in the culture. In Florida we see school library bookshelves emptying because of it. As close as in Huntington Beach there was a proposal (by the town’s Mayor Pro Tem, Gracey Van Der Mark) for all purchases made by the public library to go through the city attorney’s office, which was sort of a wild idea. That doesn’t reflect an understanding of how librarians curate content. We have master’s degrees in the organization of information and collection management, something we take very seriously.

Just from a cultural standpoint, it’s odd that we who should know better – given Stalinism and Nazism and the roaring book bonfires historically associated with top-down fascism – that we don’t make that connection, don’t fear the creeping insidiousness of wanting any book to disappear. 

Right. And just because it’s not right for your child doesn’t mean that it’s not going to literally save the life of another child.

Save the life…?

I still have a copy of a young adult book that nobody would remember to this day. It was called Willow and is about a young girl who participated in self-harm activities, but successfully worked through that part of her life and victoriously moved on. [Wetta here becomes visibly moved] Written in pencil on the cover page – in three separate sets of handwriting – were notes from three subsequent readers about how that book had led them to get help with their own self-harming behaviors. Really early in my career that said, yeah, books quite literally can save people’s lives.

Celebrate the freedom to read by joining the discussion of favorite books by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors. Complimentary copies of books will be given away and coffee, tea, and pastries will be served. Registration is not required but is appreciated so we can ensure there are enough seats and refreshments. This event is in conjunction with Pride & Joy Santa Barbara.  

Books and Breakfast:
A Pride & Joy Santa Barbara Event
Faulkner Gallery
Friday, October 6, 2023
10 – 11:30 am


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