Guest Columnist

Lessons learned from books burned

Copies of banned or subversive books were printed on photographic paper and hidden in photographic paper boxes to possibly protect them from discovery. This book was one of the artifacts on display for the Samizdot: The Art of Czech Resistance, 1968-1989 on exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in southwest Cedar Rapids in 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Copies of banned or subversive books were printed on photographic paper and hidden in photographic paper boxes to possibly protect them from discovery. This book was one of the artifacts on display for the Samizdot: The Art of Czech Resistance, 1968-1989 on exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in southwest Cedar Rapids in 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

My first thought when hearing about Paul Dorr burning LGBTQ children’s books from the Orange City Library in northwest Iowa is that he ought to be prosecuted. Of course, that’s probably exactly what he wants, another martyr persecuted by big government, the resulting misdemeanor on his record a badge of honor.

But he should think before he considers himself a hero to his cause, for what Dorr truly has done is to highlight the strength of the argument against which he rails, and exposed the weakness of his own.

Dorr and others like him want books removed from library shelves because of the ideas they contain. But those books full of ideas are passive, a treasure chest waiting for someone to open the lid. They need a reader to complete the transaction, and that transaction rarely happens in a vacuum. The ideas shared co-mingle with others in the reader’s mind and help to shape a worldview. The best books send readers to other books, uncovering avenues to explore, helping to gather puzzle pieces and pointing the direction toward the next part of the picture in need of assembly. A book about LGBTQ teens sitting on the shelf can no more turn someone gay than a book about conservative policies could turn someone into a Republican.

If the ideas expressed in “Families, Families, Families!” – a book so bold as to suggest that a family can be a group of people who love one another, regardless of whether their components match what some in society require of the term – are so powerful that the book must be burned lest children see their own home life is just as normal as the next, perhaps it is the paucity of reason behind the ideas pitched by Dorr and Co. that is the problem.

Are liberals happy with the ideas expressed in books on those same shelves by Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin? Likely not. But those books need to be on the shelves, too, because they add to the conversation – or, let’s be honest, debate – about where our country should head. To stifle ideas simply because we don’t like them is not only unpatriotic, it is cowardly. If your ideas don’t hold up to scrutiny, you may need a new idea, not a new opponent.

The silver lining to Dorr’s actions is bountiful. Children in Orange City and elsewhere now know they can go to the library to learn more about who they are and about the world around them, particularly if they have questions about their own sexual identity. In addition, Dorr surely will be fined and the library will replace those books, adding another sale for titles that address important topics. And people from around the country have donated to the library, allowing it to add to its collection and the store of information and knowledge on its shelves.

I would suggest Dorr, if he’s ever allowed back in, should spend some time perusing those shelves. Rather than looking for something to burn, he should see it as a chance to learn.

• John Kenyon is the executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature.

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