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From Book Burner to Librarian

'Cancel Culture' Illustration by Adam Zyglis on Cagle Cartoons.

I hate to admit it, but I’d have burned Mayan books back in the day. I’m ashamed to say I understand the growing hysteria among the far right to ban books from school libraries and to monitor what textbooks their children read.

But while the motivation behind “protecting the children” may stem from a good place, it can only create great harm.

Rather than demonize these parents, though, we need to understand where they’re coming from if we want to persuade them to more constructive behavior.

Just as those on the left want to protect their children from learning racist beliefs, from attitudes deeming the disabled as less than, from any harmful ideology, folks on the right also want to protect their children from learning ideas they think are bad.

Repression always leads to more repression. If the genuinely worried parents clamoring for censorship had read these books, they’d know that.

The problem, of course, is when parents want to keep every other child, indeed every other person of any age, from reading material they’ve decided is inappropriate.

Growing up, I loved monster movies. Godzilla was great. King Kong was king. It Came from Outer Space was a scream. And who didn’t love The Birds and The Blob"It creeps and leaps and glides and slides across the floor…”

I was raised Christian, with Baptist and Methodist extended family in Mississippi, but my immediate family converted to Mormonism in the suburbs of New Orleans when I was nine. Still, none of this changed my love of monsters.

At twelve, my best friend Jeff and I stayed up late together every weekend watching films like The Green Slime and Five Million Years to Earth and Planet of the Apes. We played board games like Creature Features and Dark Shadows.

Jeff introduced me to Famous Monsters of Filmland, and we both became avid collectors of the magazine. We collected Creepy comic magazines. We collected Eerie and Vampirella and the first issues of Swamp Thing.

I even owned a first edition of a novel that was soon to be released as a film. Star Wars.

But then I began to feel guilty over my burgeoning sexuality. I was gay and going to hell.

So I decided to throw myself into church meetings and read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover. For better or worse, I became a convert myself. The fact that I was attending a Baptist high school only amplified my religious impulses.

Mormons, for those who don’t know, believe there is life on thousands, perhaps millions, of other planets. The tricky part is the belief that intelligent life on those planets is identical to that on Earth—all intelligent life everywhere is human, because we are all made in the image of God, and those good people on Earth who make it to the top of the Celestial Kingdom after death then become gods as well and people their own planets.

With intelligent beings made in our image.

There were no “aliens” on other planets that looked like the creatures in Star Wars. There were no werewolves or vampires on Earth or anywhere else. There was no Swamp Thing.

These stories weren’t just “fiction,” they were lies.

Since that was the case, it wasn’t good for me to keep these books and magazines. But if they weren’t good for me, they weren’t good for anyone else, either. Even though I’d loved them for years, and I knew others might, too, it was best they just all go in the trash.

I wasn’t going to tell anyone else to throw away their books, of course. Thankfully, I never became that much of a fanatic. I simply didn’t feel it ethical to get rid of something I considered bad by polluting someone else’s mind. Chucking it all was for my good, it was for their good, it was for everyone’s good.

If you were throwing out spoiled potato salad, you wouldn’t gift it to your neighbor next door.

I watched from my bedroom window while the trash collectors hauled my rubbish away.

Fortunately, Mormonism also saved me from continuing this destructive behavior.

When I was nineteen, I was “called” to volunteer two years as a missionary in Rome. Living in Italy opened my mind in ways a suburban private school in the States never could. Then when I returned and began pursuing a degree in English, it was impossible to enter the worlds of writers from different centuries and not realize that understanding other people and other cultures was an absolute moral good.

Naturally, along with learning came questioning. And along with questioning came realizing that remaining in a church that hated me was never going to work.

This, of course, is what so many parents rushing to ban books fear. They are fully aware their children might start believing things parents don’t want them to believe.

Ideas like fascism is bad, whether that fascism is practiced by Italians or Germans or even Americans.

Their children might learn that racism isn’t simply a particular act or word but operates through a system of laws and policies that favor some people and oppress others, sometimes intentionally and other times through ignorance.

Parents have rights, but so do their children. A handful of parents shouldn’t be able to determine what everyone else’s children can or can’t read. And the rest of us have a right to demand that all citizens we interact with in our communities receive an adequate education. How can we release youth into adulthood after a twelve-year curriculum that affords them little or no in-depth study of racism, sexism, homophobia, genocide, and all the other evils they’ll encounter in the “real world”?

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That’s preparation?

What parent hasn’t heard their kids lament, “I’ll never need to know trigonometry!”

They will need to know about racism, whatever their race.

It's not enough that I can teach my child at home what the schools don’t teach. We need all children who will become adult grocers and bankers and attorneys and physicians and politicians to understand this material.

Parents who insist their children live in a bubble must be the ones to take on the responsibility of home schooling, not the other way around. And testing to grant a diploma after that home schooling must still cover this essential material.

I’ll admit, I was upset to learn that Christopher Columbus was a brutal man who enslaved indigenous people and cut off their hands as punishment for not bringing him enough gold. I’d been taught in school he was a hero. I’d been taught in church that God had led him to the Americas specifically to ensure that our religion could flourish here.

Sometimes, truths are unpleasant. A cancer diagnosis. The news that our child is a bully. A spouse’s indiscretion. But I’d rather know truths and deal with them than live in ignorance. And to have a functioning society, we can’t have one set of facts for bubble children and another for the rest.

Every kind of academic change is difficult, whether we’re moving from math to algebra, from learning French or Spanish as a second language to learning Latin or Greek or Japanese as a third.

Changing our belief system or our culture is even more difficult. The gay subculture of the French Quarter was nothing like Single Adult socials at church.

Even today, thirty-five years after being excommunicated, I’ve never had a single alcoholic drink.

Every year, I mark the anniversary of my baptism and the anniversary of the day I entered the Missionary Training Center.

When I lost my job and apartment to Hurricane Katrina and relocated thousands of miles away to the Pacific Northwest, the transition wasn’t easy. What constituted “friendliness” in the two cultures was quite different.

I grew up Republican, became a Democrat after coming out, and then moved on to become a Democratic Socialist and finally socialist. Each step along that path was difficult.

Parents naturally don’t want their children to choose a different path that might create distance in their relationships.

I lost almost all my friends and family because I read books they’d never dare open, and because I learned something from them.

Some of my ex-Mormon friends burned their personal copies of the Book of Mormon. They encouraged people to shop in thrift stores for old copies of The Miracle of Forgiveness, a book filled with hateful doctrine written by one of our former religion’s presidents. They encouraged one another to burn every copy they could find.

I’d read that book both in English and Italian, and it was indeed cruel.

But I still had no desire to burn it.

I remembered in one of my college history courses learning that Catholic priests had burned Mayan books, and I’d been horrified, not remembering that I’d done basically the same thing only a few years earlier.

But since then I’ve read Maus and loved it. I read Lord of the Flies and 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.

No one who has read or understood those books would want to ban them.

I’ve worked in public libraries in New Orleans and Seattle. I donate materials to archives and special collections, in the U.S. and other countries. I make small donations to independent bookstores.

Some have gloated that Maus has become a bestseller after the school library ban. They see this as a victory. But for every book that survives banning, a hundred others are crushed nearly to oblivion.

I’m committed to preservation, not destruction.

I used to believe I was righteous when I threw “lies” away.

No one likes discovering they’ve been wrong. It’s hurtful and embarrassing. It’s far easier emotionally to double down.

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But as I learned, it’s only easier in the short term. Eventually, repression always leads to more repression. If the genuinely worried, loving parents clamoring for more censorship every day had read any of these books, they’d know that.

The good news is that, at least for now, they still can.

Johnny Townsend