Yes, challenge book bans. But also get more people reading

Ban this column! Please!

It might seem strange to call for the cancellation of one’s own column. Who needs to squelch such a piece when newspaper audiences are declining already?

But my request is no stranger than the effort to ban books that children might read in our schools and libraries.

Surveys show children and teens are reader less than in decades past. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found the percentages of American 9- and 13-year-olds who read for fun are at their lowest levels since 1984. That’s no surprise, given all the hours kids that spend on their screens.

Yet, this is the moment that culture warriors have chosen to launch book bans. They have targeted more than 2,500 titles, according to the American Library Association. Even more gobsmacking are the reasons the book ban supporters cite: preventing kids from learning about the most talked-about issues in our society — including identity, gender or sex.

Of course, the true reasons for banning books go beyond misguided notions of childhood protection. Book bans are tied to organized efforts to demonize LGBTQ+ people, and to score political points by appealing to resentment of educational elites.

You can see both strategies in the Temecula Valley Unified School District, whose board of education voted to ban a social studies textbook, part of the elementary school curriculum, that touched on gay rights topics. In doing so, board members called the late San Francisco supervisor and gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk a “pedophile.” They later fired the popular district superintendent.

State government answered this culture war blast with bombs. Gov. Gavin Newsom denounced the board members as “malicious actors” and threatened “legal repercussions.” State Attorney General Rob Bonta launched an investigation. The Legislature advanced a bill to make it harder to ban textbooks.

Such official actions were understandable. But the top-down reprimands of board members also were a missed opportunity — to provide young people a compelling reason to read.

When it comes to the compelling California drama of gay rights, we can do better than a textbook. If I were the governor, I’d stop the public denunciations — which gave more publicity for the board members — and instead send every Temecula household a copy of Randy Shilts’ terrific biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street.

Yes, we should challenge book bans. But, more urgently, we should seize upon them to get people reading, as some librarians and booksellers are doing with special shelves devoted to banned books.

Bans can make books dangerous — and fun again. As novelist Katherine Marsh recently wrote in The Atlantic, this era of standardized curricula eschews the most captivating books, with unforgettable characters. Instead, teachers hand students short excerpts and ask for literary analysis. How appallingly boring.

If we want to engage students, we should have them read books that grab their interest — whether because they’re forbidden or messy or find beauty in surprising circumstances. And special attention should go to steering students toward readable and compelling books about love, gender, sexuality and sex, which are elemental, humanity-affirming aspects of life.

If such reading encourages actual sex, as the book banners fear, our society might be better off for it. Just as book reading has declined, so has sex among people, especially young adults, in the United States and around the globe.

According to UCLA, the percentage of Californians ages 18 to 30 who reported having no sexual partners in the past year jumped from 22% in 2011 to 38% in 2021. People are increasingly isolated, and isolation poses a public health problem. Sexual activity — the form of human connection upon which our species depends for its survival — can boost mental and physical health, happiness and quality of life.

Your columnist is old enough to remember when books and sex, and the leisurely enjoyment of both, were what summer was all about. This time of year was for shedding our American puritanism — and our clothes, and giving in to desires for beach reads and romance. (If only Americans could repurpose their puritanical fears of sex into righteous limits on guns and the violence they cause.)

So, this summer, let’s defy the censors. Read some good books — see lists of the most banned titles for ideas (I recommend “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”). And while you’re at it, get cozy with a person, too.

And if you don’t have a book lying around, perhaps you and that special someone might find reading this column romantic. Especially once it’s banned.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.


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