In response to the recent appalling spate of book banning, many of my friends and fellow writers have posted the following meme which based on a quote by Stephen King:
While their, and King’s, motivations for posting this quote are noble, I find the content of said quote unhelpful, dangerous, and misinformed. It isn’t often one can say this, but in this statement, King chose his words poorly.
While I am very much in favor of encouraging kids to read banned books, the assumptions underlying King’s advice reveal a gross misunderstanding of the on-the-ground realities for many students and assume privilege as well.
I’m willing, for now, to leave aside the opening gambit which say King “is never much disturbed” as a poorly-chosen rhetorical gambit. The real issue is the false dichotomy placing. Seeking out and reading banned books in direct opposition to being angry and protesting. One must fight against book bans because the alternative which King presents does not address the problem for most kids. Consider the third paragraph:
King advises students not to protest or sign petitions, but “instead, run, don’t walk, to the nearest non-school library or the local book store and get whatever it is that they banned.”
I’m going to begin with the end of that sentence: the assumption that a kid has enough money to buy a book, let alone the many that are likely banned by their district reveals King’s economic privilege and assumes the same of the students. I don’t know the demographics of the district where King taught way back when, but I have been a New York City public school teacher since 2007, and most of the inner-city kids whom I teach do not have extra cash to spend at book stores.
Moreover, the assumption that there is a local book store also indicates a certain type of community. Not every town has a book store, many do not have one within walking distance, and, even in suburban communities, the closest bookstore may be many miles away.
Let’s move on to the library. First off, books are being banned from libraries as well. While librarians generally try to fight the good fight, municipalities often will threaten to pull funding if the library if doesn’t pull certain books from the shelf, effectively banning those books.
But even if the banned books are available at the library, there are a number of other issues with King’s advice. First, in order for the advice to work, every kid in the class would need to borrow the book from the library. Let’s assume a class of 25 (I’ve had 34 kids in a class in the bast majority of classes I’ve taught, but let’s take 25 just for the example). Is a local library going to inventory 25 copies of Maus? Most likely, not. If a school has four sections, each with 25 kids, the library would need to carry 100 copies for each kids to have access to a copy so they could read it. I’ve taught in schools with graduating classes ranging from 100 to 900+. Eventually, the numbers get ridiculous. Let’s say that each kid borrowed the book for 2 weeks. How many books do we expect a library to carry? How long would it take for every student to read each banned book?
Not every kid would take the initiative to read the book, you might say—and you’d be right—which presents another issue with King’s argument. Only the kids with the interest and initiative to go to the library and read the banned books would read them. Most would not. To believe otherwise is idealistic nonsense. If Mr. King would think back to his days as a teacher, surely he would know this.
With the amount of ignorance which pervades our culture, and the rate at which the ignorant vote and even hold powerful positions, the dangers of the ignorance which arises from not reading banned books is great, indeed. We should be fighting against ignorance even if the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, like the Aesir against Ragnarok, rather than acquiescing to it.
“Ah,”you might say, “ but do all the kids in a class where a book is assigned read it?” The answer is certainly not. But, just as certainly, a greater percentage of them will than if the book was not assigned. Moreover, every student who attends class will have some exposure to the book, as well as its themes, issues, and historical contexts through the class discussions. Something, in this case, is better than nothing.
There is also a privilege issue with the library argument. In my district in New York City, which has one of the largest and most well-funded public library systems in the country, the public libraries close around 6pm. In the town in which I live, the library is only open in the evening twice a week, never past 7pm, and never on the weekend. Many of my students have after-school jobs which they use to help their parents pay the rent. Many take care of their siblings while their parents are at work as well. These students do not have the luxury of first researching, and second going to the public library to take out banned books on a regular basis. Maybe students in the district where King taught could, but I’m willing to bet that there are more students across the country who find themselves in a similar situation to the students whom I teach.
In addition, as students get older, they participate in after school activities. Let’s say a child is a member of a basketball team. Often, practices and road games end well after the public library would be closed. We can tell kids to pick books over their teams, but does anyone think the majority will make that choice?
For younger children—and children’s books are being as well—the problem is even greater. How are young children supposed to get to the book store or library? Who is taking them there? Surely not the very adults who populate the school boards that are banning books.
One last thing: My father was kicked out of his house for reading Catcher in the Rye. He happened to have a life situation and live in a community where he could spend the night elsewhere. Many kids do not. I wonder where the kids I teach would go if they were kicked out of their houses. Would they feel safe spending the night somewhere else even if they could obtain the book from the local library or book store? I know for a fact that many of them would not.
Returning to that opening gambit, there is no reason to place seeking out books in opposition to being angry and pursuing other means. I might, for example advise a fellow teacher who teaches in a district where Maus was banned to try to teach Joe Kubert’s Yossel, another graphic novel about the Holocaust. Leaving aside the issues of funding and acquiring the books this might be a way to stay ahead of the censors and teach a similar book. I would never advise them, however, to give up their fight to keep teaching Maus, not to protest the decision, or not to be angry or disturbed. I would, in fact, encourage that teacher to fight on multiple fronts. Similarly, while I might advise students to seek out the banned book wherever they could, I would never tell them not to be angry, not to fight, not to protest, etc. Had King advised his students in that manner, or used his immense platform to do so, I would not have a problem with his advise. The realities of how his advise would play out (as detailed above) makes his rhetorical ploy. One off as the kind of privileged indifference that people like Martin Luther King and Eli Wiesel warned against.
I agree with King’s final statement. Read banned books. Find out what “they” don’t want you to know, but be mad that those books are banned. Protest, carry signs, raise a ruckus. Even if you’re in the position where you can follow King’s advice. Fight like hell for those who don’t share your privilege. As another famous writer recently posted,
If that’s not a reason to get angry, I don’t know what is.