Culture wars are turning right to read into partisan issue

Charles Selle, October 5, 2023

By the time the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, Nazi Germany had either banned or burned more than 100 million books. Except, of course, for Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf," which in 1935 was mandated as a textbook in German schools.

Among the books banned by Nazi censors included ones by Americans like Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Jack London and Helen Keller. It was about that time our wartime President Franklin Roosevelt declared: "People die, but books never die. In this war, we know, books are weapons."

That shooting war has turned into a cultural war, as the annual observance of Banned Books Week kicked off Sunday in the U.S. In recent years, we have seen increasing attempts to ban books just as Nazis did with cheerful delight.

And if not placing outright bans on them, then bomb threats directed at libraries, like the WarrenNewport Public Library based in Gurnee, and others in the Chicago region. If librarians and library boards fail to remove books that some people disagree with, then they resort to terrorism methods about which the Nazis of old would heartily approve.

Censorship attempts and book bans have escalated greatly since 2021, according to the American Library Association. The ALA said there were 67 attempts to ban books in Illinois in 2022. Nationwide, there were a reported 1,477 attempts to ban books between 2022 and 2023, including 874 titles.

Most of those books, many young adult fiction and some classics, deal with LGBTQ subjects and racial identity. Those books are similar in topics the Nazis sought to burn beginning in the 1930s.

The scary actions prompted Illinois lawmakers during this year's legislative session to adopt a first in the nation law aimed at outlawing book bans in schools and libraries across the Land of Lincoln. The bill, signed this summer by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, takes effect Jan. 1.

When he signed it, Pritzker noted: "Regimes ban books, not democracies." Something we apparently haven't learned since World War II. Under the Illinois Library System Act, state libraries would only be eligible for state funding if they practice the ALA's Library Bill of Rights. That outlines that books "should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."

Championed by Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who doubles as state librarian, the law protects schools and libraries, "against attempts to ban, remove, or otherwise restrict access to books or other materials." Many of us thought the First Amendment covered that portion of controversial reading lists and free speech. In testimony last month before a U.S. Senate committee, Giannoulias called libraries, "the Thunderdomes of controversy and strife across our nation, the likes of which have never been seen before." Fans of the "Mad Max" film series know that he was referring to brutal caged gladiator battles inside the fictional Thunderdome arena.

We've become politically charged and divided in the debate over what books and reading materials are welcome on neighborhood library shelves. Who has the right to restrict library patrons, and tell them they can't check out a book they want to read?

Supporters of book challenges contend sexually explicit tomes shouldn't be available in school libraries. They maintain those they want removed still can be purchased at the nation's dwindling number of bookstores. Seems the right to read has become a partisan issue because many of the ban attempts are concentrated in Republican-controlled states.

Folks in Florida and Texas lead attempts to remove books from tax-supported locations.

Yet, our modern-day censors seek to deprive their neighbors of the choice to decide for themselves, their children and their families, which books they can or want to read.

They want to set the benchmark for us all.

Which is something libraries, civil libertarians and authors have battled for decades. It was the basis for the censorship warnings of Waukegan author Ray Bradbury's timeless classic, "Fahrenheit 451." Those who want to ban books need to read Bradbury's book if they haven't. Or reread it, and understand his message of what censorship leads to.