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In Defense of Books

Like many educators, I am becoming increasingly disheartened by the growing number of calls from parents and lawmakers around the country to exclude certain books from education. Tennessee recently passed a law that makes lesson plans illegal if students “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish.” A county in Texas made national news for suggesting to its teachers that they need to present an “opposing viewpoint” when teaching about the Holocaust. Advocates for these policies claim that they are intended to avoid presenting students with biased or imbalanced views. They argue that, by exposing students to ideas that may challenge their current understanding of the world, culturally responsive pedagogy somehow “indoctrinates” our youth in a way that is inherently harmful to white students. But this line of thinking suggests, among other things, that we read simply to glean some hidden truth about the world, as if the fictional narratives of authors are intended to teach readers something, rather than to reveal something to readers. 

In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” author Vladimir Nabokov tackles the idea of gleaning some larger truth from novels head-on: “We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.” He continues: “The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales.” To suggest otherwise seems to deny that these are fictional works – perhaps inspired by real events or experiences – but fictional nonetheless. To treat them as otherwise would be, in the words of Nabokov, “naive.”

Before we can begin determining the role of literature on our understanding of ourselves and our world, therefore, we must begin from an understanding that literature is, in fact, fiction. From there, we must consider the vision presented in that piece of fiction – and this vision appears to be the primary concern of parents who would seek to have certain texts pulled not only from the curriculum but, in more extreme cases, from classroom and school libraries as well. 

When award-winning author Jerry Craft’s book, New Kid, was temporarily banned in Katy, TX, one of the parents who petitioned to have the book removed argued that books like Craft’s “…don’t come out and say we want white children to feel like oppressors, but that is absolutely what they will do.” Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more. Simply reading about someone or something that is different from our own lived experiences does not cause us to feel badly about ourselves or our own experiences. What reading such stories does do is make us reflect meaningfully on the lives and experiences of others. These stories present us with insights into another world. That’s all. They are not a call-to-action, they are not a critique of the reader. They are simply openings into which we are invited to gaze. 

Each story, therefore, presents a window “at each of [which] stands a figure with a pair of eyes…which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine.” Narratives present a window for readers to gaze into, but what each reader sees depends upon the eyes through which they look. 

The simple act of gazing upon a different world does not cause us to hate our own world. Quite the opposite. Rather than making us hate ourselves, books have the ability to make us love others. Books build empathy. When we step outside of the confines of our own narrow experiences – whatever those experiences may be – we are given the gift of perspective. We can see the world through someone else’s eyes. We can hear the world through someone else’s ears. We can experience the world through someone else’s thoughts. 

Our world doesn’t become smaller because we read diverse narratives. Our world becomes larger. Exponentially, infinitely, immeasurably larger. And isn’t that the purpose of education in the first place? To allow students the opportunity to experience more, not less? To broaden, rather than to shrink, their understanding? If so, then I can think of nothing more appropriate than to provide them with access to as many books as we possibly can. We should not be closing their eyes to the world around them. Rather, we should be encouraging them to “stuff [their] eyes with wonder.” We should not be banning books. We should be celebrating them. 

Citations:

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 1951.
James, Henry. Preface to Portrait of a Lady, 1881.
Li, David K. “Texas school district pulls book by acclaimed Black author amid critical race theory claims,” NBC News, Oct. 6 2021. www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/texas-school-district-pulls-books-acclaimed-children-s-author-n1280956
McMorris-Santoro, Evan and Meridith Edwards. “Tennessee parents say some books make students ‘feel discomfort’ because they’re white. They say a new law backs them up,” CNN, Sep. 29, 2021. https://madison365.com/tennessee-parents-say-some-books-make-students-feel-discomfort-because-theyre-white-they-say-a-new-law-backs-them-up/
Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers,” 1948. 

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