BOOKS - 1 - books-book-pages-read-literature-159866

“Yes, books are dangerous. They should be dangerous – they contain ideas.”
~ Pete Hautman

“Having the freedom to read and the freedom to choose is one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me.”
~ Judy Blume

In this short series, I’ll take a look at three major threats to American life, and specifically the effects of these threats on the American workplace. 

As someone who has spent four decades in corporate workplaces, I am alarmed by the disturbing trends of escalating book and freedom-of-speech bans, gun violence and women’s reproductive health restrictions. While all three threaten the wellbeing of the workplace, they also — to paraphrase — threaten everyone, everywhere, all at once. 

Having witnessed in real time the progress from the white, male-dominated workplace of the 1960s to the current diversified and inclusive environment of the 21st century — which has opened doors of opportunity for women, the Black community and other workers of color, LGBTQIA+, migrants and expats it is both maddening and heartbreaking to see the progress made in these areas reversed by the passing of dystopian laws, radical Supreme Court decisions and other appalling and abhorrent actions.  Shockingly, parallel to the decrease in the rights of women, people of color and the LGBTQA+ community, there has been an increase in gun rights, in which guns of all kinds are easily acquired and used, which has been accompanied by a terrifying increase in gun violence over the past nearly 25 years, since Columbine, including in the workplace.

So, let’s start with the banning of books, and its twin — the banning of speech and subjects from some schools and even some colleges — and figure out what to do about them. 

First, A Look Back

As books continue to be banned with abandon across the country, especially in certain states, we are reminded of the past when books were not just banned, but burned with government approval

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, and becoming of age in the late ’60s and ’70s, it turns out that I have read many books that were banned or challenged at some point by someone, somewhere, and you likely have, too. Here is a partial list:

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm, Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Girl, Brave New World, The Call of the Wild, Catch 22, Cannery Row, Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, A Farewell to Arms, Gone With The Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, The Handmaid’s Tale, In Cold Blood, Lolita, Lord of the Flies,  Of Mice and Men, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and 1984.

 As a young girl, I also read a number of beloved banned, challenged or not recommended book series, including Honey Bunch, The Bobbsey Twins, Cherry Ames, Trixie Belden, The Dana Girls, Judy Bolton and my all-time favorite, Nancy Drew. My daughter read some of aforementioned books, as well, and also such banned books as James and the Giant Peach, The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe and A Wrinkle In Time, among othersBoys tended to read The Hardy Boys and Tom Swift.  (Note: I could find no references that the Tom Swift series was ever banned, even though it contained the same elements that caused the other aforementioned Young Adult series to be restricted.)

These and many other books were banned or challenged because of racist, sexist or antisemitic language, sexual content, criticism of a religion, government or idea.  Other books — by such authors as Jean Auel, James Baldwin, Judy Blume, William Faulkner, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, William Shakespeare and Alice Walker,  to name just a few — reportedly have been banned in one country or another at one time or another, including the U.S., because someone, somewhere was offended by something in their content.

Books written in certain eras often contain language and ideas that are instructive because they reflect the history and times through which our nation has progressed — a history that many parents, governors and state legislators would like to erase. While many of the vintage YA series mentioned have been updated to remove offensive references, sometimes the character of the those books are also changed. Two cases in point include (1) the “editing” of many of Roald Dahl’s books, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, and (2) the Nancy Drew series, to bring them up to modern times. Such editing can alter or even erase the culture, ambience, language and political issues of the times in which they were written by the original authors. Such vintage books can be understood and put in context through discussions of those books.

As a kid, I loved reading the Nancy Drew books that were written in the 1930s because the styles of dress and types of cars and even the way people spoke fascinated me! It was instructive.  Hence, I consider any subjective “modernization” of classic books, be they intended for children or adults, to be a form of censorship. I do not believe that children will be harmed by learning unaltered history, but will be harmed by not learning it. So, while many historical YA characters will live to see another day through modernization, I would also hope that the original volumes would remain in print for their historical value.

Of course, some books and characters should never be altered. Can we imagine an “edited” or “modernized” version of the Harry Potter books that could erase anything that might be offensive to a particular group, such as the wizarding / witchcraft theme itself? How would we handle Harry and the gang being regular kids and not wizards and witches? It would be unthinkable! Could that happen? After all, Harry Potter (1997-2007), The Hunger Games (2008-2020)and the Twilight Saga (2005-2008) have all been banned somewhere at some time. As mentioned, objections to Harry Potter have included the witchcraft theme. The irony is that the only spells cast on children by the Harry Potter book series have been improved literacy, elevated interest in reading and increased empathy, understanding and acceptance toward and affection for those who are different from themselves.

And that brings us to the present.

What Is Happening Now

According to PEN America,  more than half of U.S. states are banning books, including Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, to mention a few. Government officials, parents and voters who enable them, are gutting schools and even public libraries from any and all books that offend them in some way.  Being removed from shelves and reading lists are titles that include themes of — or references to — race (including slavery, black history and racial bias), gender, LGBTQIA+, diversity, interracial relationships and love, authoritarianism, sexual content (including sexual development, teenage pregnancy, crushes, etc.), profanity, violence (including a school shooting), drug usage, mental health issues, suicide, dealing with death and dying, social justice and even  a book about the aftermath of 9/11. 

As recently as 2010, a version of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, a treasured classic that has been banned in numerous places over the years, was briefly banned in Virginia, And a 2020 sweep of dozens of books in a Texas school district, included a version of the Holy Bible, which by the way is, historically,  one of the most banned books ever. Also in  2010, an edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was temporarily pulled from the shelf of a school in California and is now restricted because of what parents considered to be a racy entry (you can bet there will be a run on finding a copy of that dictionary now!). 

Because that which is forbidden is the most attractive. Kids and teens are experts on getting their hands on something that is being denied to them; they will find the banned books somewhere. The classic image of a youngster reading forbidden material by flashlight under the bedcovers — or Harry Potter in the restricted section of Hogwarts library —  come to mind! But, reading banned books means reading them in metaphorical darkness; reading books in the light of acceptance provides opportunities to discuss them in the classroom with teachers and classmates, and at home with parents and other grownups who will listen to a child’s concerns, opinions and questions. This latter approach provides guidance that promotes students’ understanding,  critical thinking and intellectual growth. It gives students the freedom to access differing ideas so they can form their own thoughtful choices now and throughout their lives. 

What Prompted The Current Banning Trend?

Finding the source of the current trend to ban, challenge and restrict books, speech and courses might seem as difficult a task as it was to find the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, according to this New Yorker article, entitled, “How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory,” in July 2020, a conservative journalist was sent information about an anti-bias seminar and a group of legal scholars who referred to their work as “critical race theory.”  The decision to exploit this information created a firestorm that delighted many extremist politicians. Of course, what has come to be known at “CRT” was not being proposed for elementary or high school curricula, but some conservative groups made sure that it became an issue for parents and school boards. 

Books Are Being Banned While Students Continue To Struggle With Reading

This latest misguided book banning trend comes at a time when our children continue to be in a reading crisis, made worse by the recent pandemic.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “Thirty-three percent of fourth-grade students performed at or above the  NAEP Proficient  level on the reading assessment in 2022. ” That’s right: only one-third of American fourth graders are proficient readers for their age! And while the COVID-19 pandemic has produced a lot of finger-pointing as to who is to blame for the current poor reading skills and scores, this problem existed well before the pandemic.

Speech and Educational Courses Are Also Being Banned

Under the guise of parental rights and protecting students, in addition to the banning of books are free-speech bans — i.e.,  the dropping of an AP African American studies course on the basis that it is “indoctrination” not education, and the implementation of the “Don’t Say Gay Law,” which aims to “prohibit classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner” — that have reared their ugly heads in Florida, and could  spread to other states. 

In my view, these are discriminatory laws, policies and prohibitions that seem political and meant to “protect” just one class — children who are white and assumed to be straight, with little or no regard for Black or LGBTQIA+ children. We’ve been down this shameful road before. Let’s not do it again. 

First Amendment Question

There is also the question of whether book banning violates First Amendment rights. The Constitution prohibits the government from interfering with a citizen’s right to free speech. It gets complicated when it comes to a state’s right to decide the educational value of a particular book. However, the right to protest a law or policy is protected by the Constitution.

Culturally, denying anyone of any age access to knowledge is a terrible thing, because — to paraphrase the words of some of the world’s greatest figures — failing to learn our history condemns us to repeat our mistakes. But learning from history produces a more enlightened citizenry, a stronger nation and a more productive, progressive and nurturing workforce and workplace. 

What Can We Do?

History has shown that peacefully protesting, standing up to elected officials and voting for candidates who will preserve the freedoms to read, speak and learn are the best way to turn the tide. As I write, book banning policies and laws are being challenged by voters and students. Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law is being protested by politicians and studentsAuthors and academics, as well, have spoken — and continue to speak — out.  Author Judy Blume — whose sometimes-banned book, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” is now a movie — commented on the so-called, “Don’t Say Period” bill: “I don’t know if he’s [Gov. DeSantis] going to try to control what actually happens to them, because I have news for him: It’s going to happen whether he likes it or not.” 

Reading ability is fundamental to all learning, and poor reading ability is connected to students dropping out of school as well as opting not to pursue higher education. Denying learning through reading books and studying certain subjects negatively impacts children’s and teens’ educations, their mental health and the open-mindedness toward future coworkers. That risks the success of the global diversity that currently comprises the modern workplace, including white-collar corporations, blue-collar assembly lines and everything else.

We should be adding books for students to read, not taking books away. 

That’s all for now. Please join me soon for Part Two, when we look at how gun violence is impacting the workplace, where reportedly the most mass shootings occur.

Meanwhile, keep reading – whatever you wish!

Until next time



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