COLUMN: books challenge, teach and sometimes infuriate | columns

Written by Jeff Mullen

Enid News and Eagle

Books—whether physical, tangible, propped up on your chest in bed and turning pages, or the electronic kind—are portals to nations, worlds, realms, and other dimensions.

Books take us to exotic places, places we might not be able to visit in person, like the summit of Mount Everest, the depths of the Mariana Trench, the highest penthouses in New York City, the slums of Kolkata or the holy halls of Hogwarts.

In the books, you can become anything, a doctor, a lawyer, a beggar or a thief. Books can take us back in time to the glories and excesses of ancient Rome, to the wild ages of the Old West, to the lordships of some of history’s most famous kings and queens.

Books are entertaining, they challenge, they tell, they are entertaining, they make us cry. The books introduce us to such great characters as Holden Caulfield, Jay Gatsby, Tom Joad, Katniss Everdeen, Scout Finch, Jay Montague and Winston Smith, as well as boys known only as Ralph and Peggy.

Books these days also seem to be controversial lightning rods.

We just finished Banned Books Week, a period dedicated to celebrating the freedom to read. According to a report by the free speech group PEN America, more than 1,600 book titles were banned in American schools during the 2021-2022 school year.

The American Library Association reports that challenging book collections in schools often focus on youth books that include race, gender, and gender identity.

Texas, according to PEN American, is the first among states to have banned the largest number of books, between 751 and 1,000. According to reports, Oklahoma has issued 26 to 50 bans.

I must admit that I’ve never read any of the more taboo books these days, titles like “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, a book about what it means to be non-binary and asexual, or “Lawn Boy by Jonathan Eveson, about a young American A Mexican who has faced difficulties since childhood and is going through a stage of self-discovery.

My taste extends further into more lofty fare, like murder mysteries, spy thrillers, and sci-fi space operas. However, I did read some old and classic works that were the subject of challenges and/or outright bans – books like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Lord of the Flies,” and “Fahrenheit 451.” Those books were required reading in many schools.

Granted, not all books are suitable for classroom settings. Studying the series “50 Shades of Gray”, for example, would be completely inappropriate. But public libraries should not ban books. Books that are very sexual in nature should be restricted to those 18 years of age or older, but not strictly prohibited.

Many banned books deal with LGBTQ+ topics, but some, such as “Out of Darkness,” which chronicles the love affair between a Mexican-American teenage girl and an African-American teenager in Texas in the 1930s, explores issues of racism, class, and segregation. Then there’s Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” which follows 16-year-old Star Carter, a young African-American who lives in a poor neighborhood but attends a posh suburban prep school. Her world was shattered when she witnessed a police officer shoot her unarmed friend Khalil during a routine traffic stop.

Certainly uncomfortable. Cringe-worth sometimes, you bet. Thought-provoking, without a doubt. An easy and light read, not an opportunity.

Books contain stories. Good stories, bad stories, sad stories, happy stories, true stories, fairy tales and a combination of all of these.

Don’t want to read a book? Then do not. And don’t let your kids read it either, if you so choose. But don’t make it difficult or impossible for someone else to read.

Writer Salman Rushdie, who was ordered to be executed by the Iranian government after his book The Satanic Verses was published, once said: “A book is a copy of the world. If you don’t like it, ignore it; or offer your own copy in return.”

Rushdie is still recovering after being repeatedly stabbed before giving a lecture last month at the Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, New York. The original fatwa, or official ruling from the Iranian government that puts a price on his head, was issued in 1989. That’s a long time to hate someone just for something they wrote.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I heard a book calling my name. Or is this my bride?

Mullen is an award-winning writer and columnist, retiring in 2017 after 41 years with News and Eagle. Email it to janjeff2002@yahoo.com Or write it at the attention of Enid News & Eagle at PO Box 1192, Enid, OK, 73702.

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