The American war on books

A prominent feature of the assault on freedom of thought and expression in the US is the race to ban books.

Umer Siddiqui, 18, holds a pamphlet as he and a group of students discuss the “The Bluest Eye” during a meeting for their book club, which reads and discusses books that have been banned in various Texas school districts, at the University Branch Library in Sugar Land, Texas, U.S. April 15, 2023. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
A student reads a pamphlet during a meeting of a book club discussing books banned in Texas school districts at the University Branch Library in Sugar Land, Texas, on April 15, 2023 [File:Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters]

Once upon a time, George W Bush – former governor of Texas, 43rd United States president and accused war criminal – made a worrying observation: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

Bush did have a point; after all, that question is indeed rarely asked, at least not by people with a command of English grammar. And yet it is a question that increasingly comes to mind these days, and particularly today on World Book Day, as the US state of Texas leads the country in a book-banning frenzy.

According to the literary and free expression advocacy organisation PEN America, between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, a total of 1,586 book bans took place in school libraries and classrooms across 26 US states. Texas was at the vanguard with 713 bans, followed by Pennsylvania with 456, Florida with 204 and Oklahoma with 43.

Heavily targeted for removal were books featuring LGBTQIA+ themes and characters as well as texts dealing with structural racism in US society – actions that naturally only reinforce the bigoted and malevolent foundations of the so-called “land of the free”.

To be sure, book bans are nothing new and have been around in America since the 1600s. In the 19th century, anti-slavery books were banned in the US South. And in Germany, the Nazis banned Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory among numerous other titles.

Despite the dubious success rate of book bans, which ultimately depends on how one defines “success”, the feverish rage they have been known to generate can certainly serve as a handy distraction for actual societal problems.

Take the case of Llano County, situated northwest of the Texas capital of Austin, where local officials are currently deciding whether to completely shut down the public library system after a federal judge recently ordered 17 banned titles returned to the shelves.

The titles include They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, which won the Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults award from the Young Adult Library Services Association in 2011.

Also on the list are Jazz Jennings’s book Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen and Robie H Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health.

Then there’s a children’s book series by Jane Bexley comprising such subversive titles as Larry the Farting Leprechaun, Freddie the Farting Snowman and Harvey the Heart Had Too Many Farts.

Which brings us to the following point: In a country plagued by racism, discrimination, socioeconomic inequality, homelessness, depression and addiction, a gas-afflicted snowman should be the least of anyone’s worries.

Mass shootings have become a daily occurrence in the US, and, just last May, an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, southwest of Llano County.

Give me a farting leprechaun over an assault rifle any day.

Obviously, the presence of any given book on a library shelf does not mean that even a tiny fraction of the population will actually read it. This is especially true in the present era of total digital distraction – another societally destructive trend that will not be solved by, you know, shuttering libraries.

But the Llano County showdown is emblematic of the general assault on any lingering sense of community in the US, where the bipartisan ruling elite directly profits from the divide-and-conquer approach and the obliteration of any notion of communal solidarity.

The resulting individual isolation and dismantling of empathy, in turn, helps cultivate a national landscape that is more conducive to mass shootings and the like.

But back to farting leprechauns.

I myself spent much of my youth in Texas and have delightful memories of the Austin Public Library, of pre-internet summers spent among stacks of books and of the satisfying sound of the librarian stamping the book checkout cards with a tool I can’t even recall the name of.

Granted, I also engaged in youthful activities like shooting beer cans off fence posts with my parents’ friend’s pistol and learning in school about why it was so great for my country to be bombing people in the Middle East in Operation Desert Storm, waged by the father of the man who would subsequently ask whether our children was learning.

Fast forward three decades, and the US continues to devote much of its time and money to destroying other countries. Lest Americans start to connect the dots as to why a country with such incredible resources can’t provide affordable housing, healthcare or education, the powers that be pursue a simultaneous domestic assault on freedom of thought and expression – one manifestation of which is the race to ban books.

And things are only going downhill.

The Republican-led Texas House of Representatives is currently making headway on a bill to ban materials containing sexually explicit content in public school libraries – an initiative that has also garnered significant support from Democrats

And in Missouri, the state House recently voted to cut all funding for public libraries in its proposed annual budget.

According to a March press release from the American Library Association (ALA), “a record 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship” in the US in 2022, which constituted a 38 percent increase over 2021. The ALA noted that the “vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color”.

It goes without saying that a society that bans books has a lot to hide. And as we mark World Book Day this year, it is worth reflecting on the fact that you cannot hide systemic rot behind the cover of a banned book.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.