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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Boise bookstore pushes back against the book banishers – you can, too

June 3, 2022 Updated Fri., June 3, 2022 at 10:26 a.m.

An image from the web site of Boise's Rediscovered Books.
An image from the web site of Boise's Rediscovered Books.

Would you like to help a teenager in Idaho read a good book?

And, by good book, I mean a book that the book banners and Torquemadas of the right would consider a bad book? A book that freaks out Islamophobes or bigots?

A book that treats all people as equal, or promotes kindness and understanding toward queer folks, or reflects uncomfortable realities of war, or factually addresses sexual health?

A book that a Nampa School Board member might consider “mentally destructive”?

Well, do I have an opportunity for you.

If you believe, as I do, that it’s good for young people to read the very books that those who think there is only one good book don’t want them to read, then take a look at what Rediscovered Books in Boise is up to.

This store, which is one of my favorites, is running a project to give Nampa students books that have been banished from their school libraries. If you are so moved, you can still head to the store’s web page and help out.

Not long ago, as you may have heard, the Nampa School Board abruptly removed 24 titles from its libraries forever – books that are the usual suspects on hit lists compiled by book banners like Moms for Liberty (!), whose members have tarred books such as “Slaughterhouse-Five” as “pornographic.”

“Slaughterhouse-Five” is, of course, a great book, hardly pornographic at all, really, and is particularly great for youngsters being bombarded by the pieties, political lies and received wisdom of those who want control the ideas in their heads.

It’s a miracle that it didn’t make it onto the Nampa list. Maybe the school board will deal with that in a Book Banishment Round 2, or by starting a book bonfire in the parking lot or something.

That’s less of a joke than it should be. The Nampa board permanently banished a lot of similarly great books, including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood; “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison; “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie; “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green; “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini …

It includes – duh – many titles that are written by LGBTQ people, or are about them, or merely acknowledges their existence without an accompanying denunciation from Leviticus.

It’s common for bookstores to promote banned books. Common for them to set up tables with those titles, and to support access to all kinds of volumes.

But Rediscovered Books is taking it further.

“We think when more people read more books, it makes the world a better place,” said Rebecca Leber-Gottberg, events coordinator at the store. “It makes people more empathetic, helps people walk in the shoes of someone else and it opens doors for important conversations.”

In a less-stupid age, this would be the “liberty” position. But that label has been seized by book-banners lately, in no uncertain terms and with no apparent awareness of the ironies involved.

Not reading good books will do that to you.

Idaho’s recent political dance with the extremist right has been studded with attacks on universities, public schools, libraries … knowledge itself. A lot of these have been driven by the nutty Idaho Freedom Foundation, whose goal is to destroy public schools, and its handmaidens in the Capitol.

This gang of wannabe Joe McCarthys convened a “task force” on liberal indoctrination in the schools last year; next year look for a similar witch hunt against libraries and librarians.

A similar spirit infused the Nampa decision, in which the school board ordered the books removed in a fashion that bypassed the district’s procedure for dealing with challenged books. The board vice chair, Tracey Pearson, described the threat from these bad books as too urgent to wait.

“By that time, we’ve traumatized or caused mental destruction to these students,” she said, according to news reports. “I think it’s too long, and in the process could add lifetime trauma to a child who does not need to be experimenting with something that they have read about. It is very destructive and scary.”

This kind of dark idiocy attracts widespread attention and criticism, but it does not define the whole state. What Rediscovered Books is doing is a part of that picture that’s often left out.

The store rallied quickly to oppose this decision. It organized a book drive – customers can buy one of these banished books, which will be offered free to Nampa students and parents at an event Wednesday.

“We pulled together kind of an all-call and asked people if they wanted to make a donation,” Leber-Gottberg said. “Our goal was 500, and we sailed past it rather quickly.”

In a week, people bought and donated almost 1,500 books. The most donated are “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “It’s Perfectly Normal” – a book for middle schoolers about sexual health that is widely praised as sensitive and frank, has won a boatload of awards and a lot of admiration from experts in the field, and which is often described by book banners as “child pornography.”

The resurgent zeal to ban books is but one of the many reasons – from shrugged-off school massacres to climate emergency to attacks on democracy in broad daylight – to feel as if we are sinking irrevocably into some end-stage dystopia.

But there is hope in pushing back. Hope in the small, good things. Hope in giving young people copies of the very books that the enemies of liberty don’t want them to read.

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