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Leonard Pitts Jr.: What do the book banners and burners fear?

If you can't read freely, how can you ever live freely?

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School librarians across Missouri are pulling books from shelves as they face the potential for criminal charges under a new state law banning "explicit sexual material."
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There are a few things you should be asking yourself right about now.

Meaning you students who find yourselves living in places where self-appointed guardians of public morality have been busily banning books. This includes Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott wants to jail librarians who allow students access to novels he deems "pornographic." And Tennessee, where a preacher in suburban Nashville held an honest-to-Goebbels book burning to destroy such dangerous texts as "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

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It includes Pennsylvania, where one school district now requires a citizens panel to sign off on every book school librarians purchase, and Arizona, where schools are required to publish a list of all newly purchased library materials. And naturally, it includes Florida, where Palm Beach County teachers were ordered to review books in their classroom libraries with an eye toward purging references to racism, sexism and other systems of oppression, under a new state law restricting the teaching of those subjects.

Not incidentally, this -- Sept. 18 to 24 -- is the 40th annual observation of Banned Books Week. It comes at what Publishers Weekly has dubbed a time of "new urgency" in the struggle over intellectual freedom. Last year, it reports, the American Library Association tracked 1,597 individual books challenged or removed from public libraries, schools and universities, the most in the 20 years it has been keeping tabs.

So, yes, you should ask yourself a few things.

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Ask yourself: What is it these people are trying to keep you from understanding or feeling? What do they think is going to happen if a book challenges you, confuses you, validates you or just inspires you to see something from another point of view? Why are they so scared that you might think differently?

Ask yourself: Why is it that many of the books being challenged or banned are by people of color or LGBTQ authors or have themes of race or sexuality? What do the book banners and burners fear from your being exposed to such things? Is it that you might start asking questions that make them uncomfortable? If so, isn't that their problem -- not yours?

Ask yourself: Why is it so many of the people who want to ban books from schools are the same ones who have no problem letting guns in? They're terrified that a book will put an idea in your head; why aren't they terrified that a gun will put a bullet there?

Ask yourself: Are you some fragile thing, some piece of human glass who needs the sharp edges and hard surfaces of new ideas bubble-wrapped so that you don't shatter against them? Or are you not smart and capable enough to handle yourself?

Ask yourself: What is the difference between banning books in Iran, Russia, Cuba and other dictatorships, and doing it here? Is it that we're supposed to be the ones who know better?

After all, this is still -- purportedly -- a free country. But that freedom is under siege, as vividly attested by new laws that muzzle teachers, by the ransacking of women's rights under the supremely illegitimate Court, by schemes that keep people of color from voting, by the attack on the U.S. Capitol. And if voting and protesting are acts of resistance, this week affirms that simply reading a book is, too. In fact, one could argue that each of us has a patriotic duty to make a book banner mad.

Because here's the thing: If you can't read freely, how can you ever live freely?

Ask yourself that, too, while you're at it.

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Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

©2021 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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