Among the more perplexing aspects of the United States’ culture wars is the targeting of books and libraries. Expanding minds and sharing experiences and offering diverse points of view, it seems, is regarded as threatening by far too many Americans.
Schools and public libraries across the country have been challenged by activists who insist that certain books are not fit for consumption. And in Columbia County, home to approximately 4,000 Washingtonians, a petition this year supported a ballot measure that could have closed the only public library.
The measure received enough signatures to land on the ballot but was blocked by a court ruling and will not be up for a vote next week. The Dayton Memorial Library will continue for now — but so will opposition to libraries.
All of which calls to mind a quote from famed author Mark Twain, who is credited with saying that “a person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” And a quote from Walt Disney: “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.” And … well, it calls to mind many quotes, because reading inspires words of wisdom.
It is no coincidence that the invention of the movable-type printing press — by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s — is regarded as perhaps the most significant evolution in human history. The widespread printing of books that eventually resulted from Gutenberg’s invention greatly expanded the sharing of knowledge, bringing it to the masses and expediting formal education.
Which leads us to some recent news items. Articles in The Columbian have included a Vancouver bookstore that caters to fans of romance novels; a local author who has written a book detailing the history of Battle Ground Lake; and the Clark County Arts Commission seeking applications for Clark County poet laureate.
Also reflecting our love of the written word is the Portland Book Festival this weekend, bringing to the area many nationally known authors from a variety of genres.
Among the obvious benefits to reading — increased general knowledge, improved vocabulary, free entertainment — there are less-obvious advantages. Various studies have found that reading books can promote empathy and emotional intelligence while reducing stress and improving sleep.
And still, attempts to ban books are increasing. The American Library Association reported challenges to 1,915 unique titles during the first eight months of 2023 — a 20 percent increase from the same period in 2022 and the highest total in the 20 years data has been compiled. The association reports, “Most of the challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.”
Such enmity also is evident in boisterous complaints about having men dressed as women while hosting readings for children. The solution seems simple: If you don’t approve, don’t have your child participate. Seeking “parental control” while limiting options for other people’s children is offensive and hypocritical.
Which leads us to another quote. In a letter to a colleague, Thomas Jefferson once wrote about a book, “If it be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for god’s sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose.”
Books and libraries have become an unlikely battleground for America’s specious culture wars, driven by people who often ignore facts and reasoning in their arguments. The situation gives us all the more reason to celebrate local bookstores, local authors and local book festivals.