As a historian of literacy, I coined the phrase “the literacy myth” to identify, explain, and criticize the former consensus that reading and writing (and sometimes arithmetic) are sufficient in themselves, regardless of degree of proficiency or social context, to transform the lives of individuals and their societies.
In late 2021, I’m confronted with an unprecedented “new illiteracy”—another version of the ever-shifting literacy myth. The historical continuities are shattered by, first, the call to ban books in innumerable circumstances; second, the banning of written literature without reading it; and, third, calls for burning books. This constitutes a movement for illiteracy, not a campaign for approved or selective uses of reading and writing.
Banning books from curricula, erasing them from reading lists, and ridding them from library shelves has mid-20th-century precedents; the burn books movement does not. Nor does the banning of books without censors reading them to identify their offending content.
Banning books is an effort, unknowingly, to resurrect the early modern Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation against both radical Catholics and early Protestants, which attempted to halt unauthorized reading, including curtailing the ability of individuals to read for themselves. Then seen as a “protest,” individual access to written or printed texts was perceived as threatening in ways that controlled oral reading to the “masses” by a priest or other leader was not. It enforced orthodoxy and countered both collective and individual autonomy.
The similarities and differences between today and a half millennium ago are powerful. Both movements are inseparable from ignorance, rooted in fear, and expressed in both legal and extralegal struggles for control and power. Both are inextricably linked to other efforts to restrict free speech, choice and control over one’s body, political and civil rights, public protests, and more.
Once led by the established church, censorship crusades to ban written materials of all sorts are today supercharged by right-wing politicians, radical evangelicals, and supporting activists. In the eyes of some, these politicians are opportunistic.
Despite media comments and condemnation by professors, teachers, librarians, and First Amendment attorneys, these issues are poorly understood. Parents of school-age children are confused. The young, supposedly in the name of their protection, face the greatest threat to intellectual and psychological development. That danger is most severe for the racially and gender diverse, who see themselves being erased or banned.
This movement harkens back well beyond the “ban books” and “read banned books” movements of the 1950s and ’60s, with their obsession with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Even Anthony Comstock, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who tried to use the U.S. Postal Service to limit the circulation of obscene literature and destroyed books, did not aim to empty libraries.
Compare this history to efforts in Virginia to ban Nobel Prize– and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Toni Morrison’s classic novels The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Or Texas school districts’ ban of young adult novelist Ashley Hope Perez’s award-winning Out of Darkness, based on a single paragraph taken out of context. In all these cases, the new illiterates either do not, or cannot, read the supposedly offending texts.
Perhaps the most revealing example is Republican Texas state representative Matt Krause’s campaign stunt of releasing a list of 850 books that he wants to be “investigated” for some unspecified violations. He demands school superintendents provide him with lists of texts that deal with certain subjects relating to race and sex, a probably illegal fishing expedition.
Krause alleges that these titles may violate Texas HB 3979, known as the “critical race theory law.” Almost none of the 850 books have anything, directly or indirectly, to do with critical race theory. What is immediately apparent from a look at Krause’s list is that it is compiled from an internet search of keywords. It is also organized by publication date, which has no relationship to the content. A numerical bias favors the most recent years. Once again we find the new illiteracy: no familiarity with actual contents of the listed volumes and no concern to examine them directly. Sixteenth-century orthodox Catholics and Anthony Comstock would turn over in their graves.
Previous banning movements did not overtly concentrate on race, aim to empty libraries, or associate so closely with one political party. The people behind these movements prided themselves on their direct familiarity with the explicit contents of that which they wished to ban (or even burn). They used their literacy in their brazen efforts to control the uses of others’ literacy. Today’s banners and burners, by contrast, are the new illiterates, achieving a rare historical distinction.
Harvey J. Graff is a professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio Eminent Scholar at the Ohio State University; the author of The Legacies of Literacy, among other books; and the founding director of LiteracyStudies@OSU.