Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The most dangerous idea in a library? Empathy

  My 9-year-old daughter recently asked me if reading really makes you smarter.

  Put on the spot, I garbled my answer. I was driving, and we had to get to a softball practice on time.

  But here’s what I wanted to say: Reading teaches you new things. But more importantly, it makes you a more empathetic person. So, yeah.

  My example here is John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” I read it the summer before ninth grade as part of a required book list.

  And for a 14-year-old, it was a struggle. It was long; it was grim. The Joad family’s suffering sometimes abated but never ended.

  Leaving Rose of Sharon in that barn was a relief.

  But against all odds, the novel stuck with me.

  The tractor driver casually eating his lunch before knocking a family’s home down, indifferent to their pleas. The Joad family becoming joyful when they find a job paying a few cents above starvation wages or getting a decent tent. A young woman’s knuckles torn apart by a bullet during an attack on a camp. And Rose of Sharon’s final act of generosity.

  Books, even bad ones, let you live another life for a few hundred pages. They let you walk in the souls of people you may never meet and connect you in ways you might not expect.

  And that frightens a lot of people.

  I’m not certain that the terror of understanding is what’s actually fueling the wave of attacks on libraries in Alabama and around the nation. This “outrage” has a got-it-at-warehouse-club feel, even in a state where made-up problems spark more outrage than life-threatening crises.

  If this fury was truly a grassroots phenomenon, you’d expect each local protest to be different from the other. But we hear at both a state Public Library Service meeting in Montgomery and in a meeting in Fairhope in Baldwin County that Marxists, who are absolutely not a factor in Alabama, are absolutely forming cadres around the bean bag chairs near the Raina Telgemeier books. (You will see a reindeer in Baldwin County before you see a Marxist.)

  And there’s the endless hollering that acceptance and acknowledgment of LGBTQ people is actually one of many “radical gender ideologies.” Frightening, indeed, to ask people to live in peace with each other. The only radical gender ideology I worry about is the one that tells my daughters that God created them solely to serve men.

  But let’s give these book-objectors the benefit of the doubt and say they’re legitimately afraid.

  Of what?

  You don’t want your kids exposed to sexual themes? May I suggest going to the library with them?

  That was what Alabama Public Library Service Director Nancy Pack proposed in a response to a letter from Gov. Kay Ivey, pointing out that parents need to decide what’s suitable for their kids because “library staff cannot feasibly monitor children’s behavior or their choices of reading material.” It’s also the approach Ozark Dale County Public Library decided to take last week.

  If the experience with my three children is any sign, your kids will gravitate toward the wimpy kids’ diaries; half-man, half-canine law enforcement officers; and books about which animals would win in a fight — not “Ulysses” or “Das Kapital.”

  And if my kids are reading about people from many different backgrounds, good. In fact, I want them to read those stories. I want them to appreciate people as people, regardless of their race, their creed, their sexual orientation, or their gender identity.

  It’s strange to think an idea so banal could be so terrifying. But empathy scares some people.

  “The Grapes of Wrath” got widespread acclaim upon publication. But it also faced concentrated hatred from people who deeply resented the connection readers made with the Joad family. The book faced bans almost immediately after publication in 1939 and was reportedly burned by the public library in East St. Louis, Illinois.

  Why? Thousands if not millions of people looked at Dust Bowl migrants differently after the novel came out. Storytelling is the seed of sympathy. Sympathy leads to concern. And concern leads to questions about why people suffer.

  It’s telling that so many of our state’s leaders have jumped into this library panic. Ivey, who forced the state’s pre-K director out because a training manual encouraged teachers to understand their students’ backgrounds, also wrote a letter expressing her “deep concern” about our libraries.

  The chair of the Alabama Republican Party got the Library Service to create forms for people to lodge complaints. (Notably, there’s no way to evaluate the validity of these complaints.)

  This is understandable. We have a state government that’s spent the last few years making both abortion and gender-affirming care felonies. If you’re treating women as children and transgender children as viruses, you can’t let human sympathy get very far.

  But it’s also instructive that Alabamians in these communities — most conservative, some deeply so — are pushing back. Over 100 people showed up in Prattville earlier this month to support the library against an attack on its independence. Dozens of people in Fairhope and Ozark came out to their meetings to defend their libraries, too.

  They’re people connected by books. Connected in defense of libraries as places to encounter ideas and experiences. Defending libraries as places to better understand the world and the people in it.

  And ensuring that my daughter can do that, too.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector. 

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