I have always loved Ray Bradbury’s writing, both as a reader and as a teacher. His ability to create futuristic settings that accurately predict changes and their consequences – often painful consequences – has always provoked deep thought in both me and my students. I so loved teaching Fahrenheit 451, with its dire warnings ofthe potential impact of technology on free thought in the future. The protagonist’s wife wears thimble/seashell radios like today’s air pods and watches video on large parlor walls, realities today that were unforeseen by others in 1953. I always knew that his predictions proved uncannily accurate, but I never thought I’d see the book burning from Fahrenheit 451 come to pass now in our country. Sadly, it has.
On November 8, 2021, when the Spotsylvania County Public School Board in Virginia unanimously ordered its school libraries to begin removing “inappropriate” books, two board members, said they would like to see the removed books burned. One announced, “I think we should throw those books in a fire,” and another said he wants to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff” [time.com].
Since September, school libraries in at least seven states have removed books challenged by community members… Most of the challenged books so far, across fiction and non-fiction, are about race and LGBTQ identities [Ibid.].
The Executive Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom warns that they are seeing “an unprecedented volume of challenges.” In twenty years of working for ALA, she “can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis” [Ibid.].
Challenges and book banning are not new. The vision that we should burn books and eliminate them from circulation, however, is. The culture wars that have been dividing this country have bred resistance to exposing readers to a range of ideas, especially about sexuality and race. “Schools around the country are scrutinizing and sometimes pulling books from the shelves, as backlash to stories centering on race, sex and queer identities becomes part of mainstream Republican politics” [WashPost]. It’s happening in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) “ramped up the rhetoric this week with orders for a statewide probe of potential ‘criminal activity’ surrounding ‘pornography’ in schools” [Ibid.]. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) seeks a similar investigation, and a Kansas school district temporarily froze library checkouts of 29 books after a parent complained before lifting the hold. [Ibid.] In Pennsylvania, a school district froze access to a long list of books and educational resources focused on people of color and anti-racism, including children’s picture books about civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr,” before critics convinced them to restore the books [Ibid.].
Bess Levin reminds us of the history of book burning: For those unaware of the historical precedents, book burnings have a long and dark history tied to censorship and oppressive regimes, most famously the one in Nazi Germany led by Adolf Hitler. In 1933, Nazis burned thousands of books deemed “un-German,” including the works of Jewish authors like Albert Einstein and those of “corrupting foreign influences” like Ernest Hemingway” [Vanity Fair].
Those who demand removal and even burning of books that show a different worldview from theirs would deprive their children – indeed all learners – of the chance to learn empathy and understanding, to explore worlds and situations different from what they already know. A high school English teacher in Spotsylvania offers a compelling argument against her school board’s decision. Christine Emba acknowledges that reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of the books under attack, made her very uncomfortable with its sex, violence, and mention of bestiality.
“It was a hard read. You felt bad. It was also an illuminating corrective, studied against the Virginia backdrop of Robert E. Lee worship, Stonewall Jackson fetishization, and the plantations where enslaved people, we heard in our history classes, worked mostly happily for noble, caring masters. The novel taught me the power of literature, how words could transmit deep emotion. It did keep me up at night, because I was grappling with the pain of another person, wondering how someone could get to such a place, how people could do these things to one another. The gory details of the book fled my mind in the ensuing years. But the feeling — I never forgot it” [WashPost]. She describes this battle over books as a “a referendum on empathy and responsibility. A vote on Americans’ duty to engage and bear witness to their country’s past, or on the “parental right” to continue to turn a blind eye and make sure that children do, too” [Ibid.].
Don’t we want learners to grapple with the human condition and to appreciate the power of literature to illuminate it? Book burning is the enemy of freedom of thought, and its current popularity scares me. I don’t want this prediction of Bradbury’s to thrive in this country.