After ruminating on Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign to sanitize school libraries, I began to wonder what happens when someone eventually tries to scrub our public libraries clean.
Abbott this week told state agencies to develop standards that ban “overtly sexual” books, “pornography” and “other obscene content in Texas public schools.” He followed by calling for a criminal investigation into “pornographic books” in public schools.
It sounds good, but I’m of two minds about Abbott’s crusade.
Pornography doesn’t belong in schools, but I doubt any school library stocks actual porn. There’s no roped-off, seedy back room in any school library I’ve seen.
One of the books Abbott called into question contains a drawing of a sex act. I’ve seen the drawing. It’s not porn because it isn’t meant to titillate. It is overtly sexual, and I find it objectionable in a teen’s book. I don’t think it should be in a school library, but it should have a place somewhere in a public library.
The subject of that book and many others are best tackled by an audience more mature than high schoolers, but who will face the tremendous weight of becoming Generation Z’s arbiter of obscenity and maturity? I’m glad it isn’t me.
Most troubling is that the war of the school library almost always spills into the public library. History tells us so. Attacks on books come in cycles, and we are at the start of the latest wave.
This wave will be led to its crest, not necessarily by Abbott or anyone with good intentions, but by zealots who haven’t read the books they call into question.
Like any reader worked up about the future of books, I went in search of the those most likely reach the bonfire first.
After thumbing though the virtual card catalog, I scurried around the office with pride telling everyone who would listen that the Judy B. McDonald Public Library is home to 17 of the 19 recently most challenged books.
This list includes classics Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” but is mostly books about LGBTQ kids and teens.
As a nearly 40-year-old man with no children, I’m not the target market for books about youth sexuality, thus my opinion about them doesn’t matter, other than to say I understand they are important to certain readers.
However, I know when moralists and censors come for those books, my copy of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” isn’t far behind. Its worn paper cover is no longer sturdy enough to provide a closet to hide the gay character within.
I could see the prigs standing before the library, exclaiming in overly dramatic tones, “What about the children?!?” The voracious readers on the opposite side whisper to each other that no child would make it past the first chapter of Waugh’s historical novel without surrendering to boredom.
In solidarity, I sped to the library where I stalked the aisles in search of widely banned classics.
I ran my fingers along the spine of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the subject of a landmark obscenity trial where America decided that language in literature is not obscene if it doesn’t “promote lust.”
I marveled at the covers of Herman Melville’s novella “Billy Budd” — some people think those sailors were engaged in a bit too much gaiety — and the masterful 760-page joke about the male anatomy that is Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
I own these books and most of the others I sought. I didn’t want to check them out solely for the sake of doing so and deprive other readers. After about half an hour, I settled on D.H. Lawrence “The Rainbow.”
The reason was twofold.
First, censorship nearly ruined Lawrence’s career. The people of Great Britain found “The Rainbow” so offensive in 1915 that more than a thousand copies were seized by the government and burned.
Cancel culture is nothing new.
Second, Lawrence, by many accounts, was not a nice person. He was described by novelist Martin Amis as a “beater of women and animals, racist, anti-semite, etc, etc.” Scholars reject some of those claims, but only some.
Today, Lawrence would be a prime target for all sides of the so-called culture war.
But his prose is lyrical, sensual and has a unique and extraordinary ability to convey the complexity of ordinary life. Each page offers countless chances to reflect, lessons that life was as complicated then as it is now.
Regardless of what he did or wrote in his relatively short life, I hope no one ever tries to take his work away from me or the future generations who might come to love or hate it.
At the public library, the choice should always belong to the reader.
Josh Edwards is managing editor of The Daily Sentinel. He owes his love of D.H. Lawrence’s writings and other classic British literature to now-retired Paris Junior College vice president Dwight Chaney.