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A case for banning book bans

by By Darrell Ehrlick Daily Montanan
| May 31, 2024 7:00 AM

Smut and libraries may have saved my life.

As much as anyone can say for certain that a particular moment or small series of events had a profound, outsized impact on a life, I can say that books with — how to put this delicately so as not to offend the prudish sensibilities of the brigades of self-appointed citizen censors — adult-content helped change the path of my life.

For the better.

As naive as some of these Moms for Liberty groups are, I had been exposed to plenty of porn and cussing long before I entered a literature class as a junior in high school. A kid from the neighborhood who busted into his father’s Playboy stash had given me plenty of anatomy lessons prior to Hemingway. And as a pre-teen boy, my mouth had mastered the art of cussing long before I could get my hands on other adolescent contraband like booze or cigarettes.

And I was allegedly a good kid.

None of this will come as a shock to those who knew me.

Until I entered Mrs. Simmons’ literature class, I was fairly certain that books held nothing for me but homework. But that changed when she handed me a copy of “A Farewell To Arms,” which led me to the “Sun Also Rises.” While those books weren’t written for the purpose of drawing a teenager into them, they were about war, and women and boozing — all subjects with irresistible charm for a kid who didn’t know the first thing about much of that stuff. And if books that made an art form out of cussing, like “Catcher in The Rye,” were held up as icons of great literature, then maybe there was more to books than I had imagined.

That began a lifelong love of learning and reading that eventually led me to a degree in literature and a passion for the written word.

But it’s not just literature I discovered. I can remember buying a used copy of the “War of the Copper Kings” and being enthralled with the stories of Copper King F. Augustus Heinze fending off a crowd of angry miners ready to lynch him until he spellbound them with a speech not so unlike William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Crosses of Gold” speech.

This could have hardly been predicted for a kid that was in danger of failing most of his elementary school classes, and who had been labeled as “unlikely to graduate” by a third-grade teacher.

In those books, I found something relatable that wasn’t a parent, teacher or a Bible verse.

I don’t think my parents knew what I was reading, and they were probably just relieved that I showed any interest in books or studies.

No one can say for certain what books will resonate with what kids, or what voices and experiences will help a young person find their way. The only thing that book bans will guarantee is that there will be fewer books to change a kid’s life.

If we’re concerned about what our children are reading, the solution isn’t as hard as some of these groups seem to be making it: Then read what they’re reading.

And if we want to know what they’re thinking about sex, drugs or any number of subjects, I’d suggest the answer is more conversation.

As a reporter who has been covering this topic, I’ve read many of the objectionable books, studied the lists and citations of offending passages. Many deal with adult themes of sexuality, drugs or violence. Few seemed totally foreign to the experiences I had growing up, even if we do have our 30th class reunion this summer.

All of those topics are realities in the world in which they live, and so as a parent, I appreciate that my children can read about some of these subjects in print before having to deal with them in life.

The groups around the state that have been urging book bans and attacking librarians and school boards have mistaken their own discomfort for protection. Banning books will only delay the conversations or the realities of sensitive subjects until a later time, and then those same kids will be left with fewer tools to deal with the difficult topics.

I can’t name a single person who said they became a pervert through literature in the school library, especially when there’s an entire universe of porn just one click away on a phone or internet.

And if merely being exposed to literature or books about violence makes someone contemplate a mass shooting, then we’d better start outlawing all “action thriller” movies, GI Joe figures and most cartoons.

It’s not that I want my child — or any children — to consume an intellectual diet of garbage or filth. It’s that I need them to be strong enough readers and thinkers to be able to separate the salacious from the serious. To put it in terms even those with censor-envy can understand: We want readers who don’t get stuck on boobs.

Quite frankly, I am not worried about my children or students getting corrupted by what they read. I am more worried they’ll become intellectually flabby because they don’t read enough that challenges their world views.

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah and Wyoming.