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McCOY: Book-burnings should be off the table

We should push back against the conservative “war on books” taking place largely in Virginia, which now threatens to escalate to book-burning

<p>A key theater of the "war on books" is here in Virginia, especially with Youngkin's gubernatorial campaign focus.</p>

A key theater of the "war on books" is here in Virginia, especially with Youngkin's gubernatorial campaign focus.

Some have recently identified a “war on books” facing schools across America, as conservatives nationwide push to ban literature that could prompt classroom discussions on America’s racial history or that feature prominent LGBTQ+ characters. A key theater of that war is here in Virginia — for example, Virginia’s Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin ran his campaign on “school issues,” promising to ban “critical race theory” in schools and to guarantee “parents’ rights.”

One of the more startling battles of this “war on books'' took place recently in Spotsylvania County, where one parent — who was reportedly “alarmed” by LGBTQ+ fiction on the school library’s website — complained about the presence of the book “33 Snowfish” by Adam Rapp in the library. Publishers Weekly called the novel a “dark tale about three runaways'' recommended for students ages fifteen and over, and the American Library Association put it on its 2004 Best Books for Young Adults list. 

Such complaints spurred the Spotsylvania School Board to ban “sexually explicit” materials from its library shelves in a 6-0 vote. According to Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star, “[t]wo board members, Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail and Livingston representative Kirk Twigg, said they would like to see the removed books burned.” Abuismail is reported as saying, “I think we should throw those books in a fire,” and Twigg acknowledged that Twigg “would like to see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.” 

Amidst negative publicity surrounding these comments, the school board reversed its decision on removing the books. Some upset parents, however, took to Facebook to set up a “Book Burning Event.” The Facebook post called on parents to have their children check out library books for parents to burn in a fire pit outside of a school board meeting, writing, “Yes, at the end of the year, we will have to pay for them. But this year no one will be able to check them out. Feel free to bring marshmallows and a stick.”

Many were quick to denounce the event and Facebook for platforming it. Chelsea Clinton, for example, posted a Tweet condemning Facebook, and Qasim Rashid, 2020 Democratic nominee for Congress, similarly tweeted, “This is fascism. [Facebook] is allowing it. Reckless & unacceptable.” While the post was eventually removed amidst this backlash, it was up for far too long — after all, the event was advocating for parents to potentially commit crimes, as it is against Virginia law to damage materials from any “library … or other educational institution.” 

Ironically, movements to ban books from schools often backfire, which is consistent with the Streisand Effect — an often-online phenomenon where attempts to censor information inadvertently lead to increased awareness of that information. Richard Price, author of the “Adventures In Censorship Blog,” writes that one banned book called “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison was “a book no one heard about until a mom showed up and ranted about it at one of the Texas districts, and video of her rant circulated on YouTube,” and that another, entitled “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe “[circulated] the same way.” The Streisand Effect was working in full force with “33 Snowfish,” too, putting the previously-obscure novel into the hands of many new readers — take for example a five-star Amazon review for the book, which begins, “I read this book because some hateful people in my community wanted to ban it from the high school libraries.” 

The reviewer goes on to say, “Those people were so wrong about it …This book is a great read for mature young adults, or teenagers who are maybe in a dark place and need a non-judgmental hand to show them something hopeful.” This review illustrates, for one, how the attempt to ban and destroy books in Spotsylvania County backfired, but also how important it is that the proposal fell flat. 

It’s not enough to sit back and hope that book banning attempts — which pose an increasing threat nationwide — backfire. To remove books like “33 Snowfish” from our schools is to deprive teens of novels that could be beneficial to their development as students or people — in ways that the one parent who made it a mission to weed out LGBTQ+ books from their child’s school library seems to not understand. And the plainly hateful, exclusionary and anti-intellectual proposals to take a step further by burning such books must be tirelessly resisted. Particularly with the election of Youngkin, we must ensure that those who push for censorship of such material do not ruin the development of students throughout the Commonwealth.

I haven’t read Rapp’s novel, but, in the light of the controversy it recently spurred, I recall the words of esteemed author David Foster Wallace, who wrote, “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” This quote, in conjunction with the above-mentioned review, suggests that “33 Snowfish” is probably good fiction — and also, that those calling for its removal are probably much too comfortable, having been emboldened by the incendiary rhetoric of their elected officials. 

Robert McCoy is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.

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