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Shawn Vestal: Idaho kids need protection from lawmakers, not librarians

The Idaho House of Representative is seen in session March 14 at the Statehouse in Boise.  (Keith Ridler)

When I was a boy, I checked out a book of Alfred Hitchcock short stories from the library.

I don’t remember much about the book, or exactly how old I was. Fourth or fifth grade, I think. I do remember the librarian asking me, maybe jokingly, if I was old enough to be reading it.

But read it I did.

I remember thinking what a perilous, murdery place the world must be.

That was at my hometown library in Gooding, Idaho, which was then in a small brick building on Main Street, across from Meyer Bros. Hardware and Wilson-Bates Appliance store. It was the same library where I remember, when I was a little older, checking out the novels of S.E. Hinton, which made me anxious about the possibility that outside of my small, safe hometown, young people with colorful nicknames were engaging in knife fights and gang wars daily.

It was also where I checked out Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” simply because the cover made it look transgressive and dangerous. I remember delighting in all the vulgarity and not really understanding all the drug use in the book, which I was doubtlessly too young to read.

Then our town’s library moved to a larger building, a former Safeway store, with more room for books. At that library, as a teenager, I began checking out novels that sometimes included more adult material – cursing and foul language, depictions of sex, drug use and drinking, and, notably, a disrespect for authority and other ideas that would have been considered dangerous or inappropriate by some of the adults in my life.

Growing up in a very religious – though education-minded – home, I was hungry for these dangerous and inappropriate ideas. Growing up in a very small town, I was hungry for news of the wider world.

I checked out novels by Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller. I checked out novels by Henry Miller, simply because I had heard they were dirty. Instead, I discovered they were boring, at least to me then. A lot of what I remember of those books are the moments of sacrilege and transgression – moments where I ran across the kind of thing that I knew I was not “supposed” to be reading.

I recall the crude, hand-drawn pictures of body parts in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” I remember a scathingly sacrilegious joke in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” I remember the unfortunate liver from “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

These were not dirty books, though censors and moral scolds deemed them so. They were not harmful, though they represented an absolute threat to puritanical tyrants who want to draw a cloak of secrecy around parts of the human experience.

They were books about life. As such, they included passages about the parts of life that some adults are forever trying to hide from children – whose interest in these parts grows in direct proportion to efforts to hide them. They were brutally irreverent, these books, about hypocrisy, cruelty, ignorance and the empty pieties of the authoritarian mind.

Not for kids, some folks might say.

Perfect for kids, in my view. I remain grateful to have encountered them at a young age and would not have done so if it weren’t for the Gooding Public Library.

Which brings us to the Idaho Legislature’s latest campaign to en-dumb-nify the state. Having exhausted itself last year with ignorant attacks on the school system – and cutting university budgets over a made-up CRT scandal – Idaho lawmakers turned their censorious sights toward libraries in this session.

First, they debated legislation that would have criminalized librarians who allowed minors to access “harmful” materials – part of the constant threat that a child might be exposed to an idea from outside the echo chamber, usually dealing with something terrifyingly queer.

“I would rather my 6-year-old grandson start smoking cigarettes tomorrow than get a view of this stuff one time at the public library or anywhere else,” said Rep. Bruce Skaug, a Republican from Nampa.

The material that put Skaug on the fainting couch came from a folder with partial selections from seven books that dealt with gender identity, masturbation, acceptance of LGBTQ kids and sexual health for children. These books are shelved in the adult sections of libraries, yet who knows when Rep. Skaug’s grandson might stroll over, unattended, and open one up?

To address this dire threat, and to protect the endangered youth of Idaho, some lawmakers wanted to start jailing librarians.

When Idaho librarians pushed back against the lies and misleading claims being made, well, that upset the anti-library brigade so much that they cut millions in federal funding for telehealth technology in rural libraries and hundreds of thousands in state funds for audio and e-books for school-age kids.

They also agreed to form a legislative committee to investigate library materials statewide, a McCarthyite tribunal that promises to be every bit as intelligent and productive as last year’s task force investigating indoctrination in schools.

These are the actions of rank authoritarians, whose playbook throughout history has included attacks on schools and libraries, books and art, science and knowledge, the unorthodox and outsiders. Without fail, they drape militant bigotry and political censorship with calls to protect children.

But it is these hysterical lawmakers from whom Idaho’s children need protection. It is the people who want to draw the cloak around the world and parochialize the minds of the young that pose the real threat in the Gem State.

This year’s library circus at the Statehouse was, all in all, the perfect argument for a more robust library system, just as last year’s education task force was the perfect argument for better schools.

The more books that Idaho’s children read and the more truth they learn in school – about the world as it is, not the fantasy realms of the culture war – the more hope there is for intelligent life in the Statehouse, however far into the future that may be.

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