Books are dangerous things. But not reading enough of them can be fatal to civil society.
Given the high political stakes, it’s amazing that being called “bookish” has devolved into a sneer. Too often, kids who love to read are called dorks or nerds or some combination thereof, but definitely not high-school-hero athletes, as if mens sana in corpore sano — a sound mind in a sound body — has become an impossible contradiction in terms. To subvert negative stereotypes of bookishness was one of the genius maneuvers of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, which saw Harry pushing up his mild-mannered glasses and Hermione raiding the library in order to fight evil by reading spells aloud. That epic battle against Voldemort and the death-eaters began 20 years ago. Today, young people are the “most literate” demographic, with successful Young Adult titles now being routinely optioned for television series and films.
What makes a book “Young Adult” as opposed to, say, a novel for adults? Turns out, as YA author Emily Ross concedes after making a valiant stab at defining it, nobody quite knows. Typically, a “Young Adult” book features a teenage protagonist and a correspondingly angst-ridden worldview. But since more than half of the readers of YA are adults, the genre is arguably better understood as “pop literature” — or rather, books people will read even though they don’t have to.
Therein lies the source of its power, and the reason why it generates profound anxiety and territorialism. If this past decade has seen Young Adult literature becoming ground zero for the iCulture Wars, those furious Twitter fights and digital media think pieces calling out systematic marginalization, institutional racism, and cultural appropriation in the YA world are more accurately understood as the latest iteration of an age-old power struggle over who has the right to control the narrative regarding the way we see ourselves, and how the world sees us.
Suddenly, books are dangerous again.
Split second confusion at the post office.
Post woman: “Do any of your articles contain anything liquid, perishable, fragile, or potentially dangerous.”
Me (thinking about my “articles” i.e.--writing--and then realizing I was shipping two of my books): “ummmm”
In my head: wow: perishable, fragile, dangerous... I ...ummmm
Post woman: Just press yes or no
Even as far-right populism continues its global rise, the written word has become vibrant with danger precisely because it has the potential to challenge the mono-think tendencies of hyper-partisanship and authoritarianism. Historically, wars and religious conflicts have led to censorship, confiscations and book burnings, the politics of which have driven dystopian plot lines from Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic "Fahrenheit 451" to Sabaa Tahir’s bestselling 2015 YA novel "An Ember in the Ashes." These and many other stories hope to remind us that the freedom to choose our own reading is a form of resistance against the looming threat of a totalitarian state, whether extreme Left (as in George Orwell’s "1984"), or extreme Right (as in Markus Zusak’s 2012 novel "The Book Thief").
Seen in this light, the bookish are not dweebs but the baddest of badasses.
But there is a classed component to reading, which has not only contributed to elitist disdain for popular literature but also to the political blindness misreading populist anger in this country. In "The Seven Curses of London" (1869), journalist James Greenwood went to visit the boys’ section of a London penitentiary. His guide was the prison governor, who asked a repeat offender in solitary confinement:
Governor: …Can you read, lad?
Lad (with a penitential wriggle). “Yes sir. I wish as I couldn’t, sir.”
Governor. “Ah! Why so?”
Lad (with a doleful wag of his bullet-head). “Cos then I shouldn’t have read none of them highwaymen’s books, sir; it was them as was the beginning of it.”
“It” was a life of crime leading him straight to the gallows, to be hung as an incorrigible thief, for “them highwaymen’s books” were also known as penny dreadfuls. This was cheap, popular literature deemed to be corrupting the youth of the day, and its bad influence was commonly blamed for the very existence of urban criminality.
Today, we’d call this line of reasoning “victim blaming.” It follows that the strongest children would rebel against the horrifying conditions imposed on them by the capitalist exploitation of labor, and turn impulsively to crime for lack of a better understanding of the socio-economic reasons keeping them in poverty. The hardened lad in question was estimated to be no more than 13 years old. Insofar as compulsory schooling laws would not be passed until 1876, the young recidivist was not obligated to be in school and, in any case, the working poor were only educated only up to the age of ten. Hence the appeal of the penny dreadful for these children, and for the adults they would eventually become. They could read up to a fifth-grade level, but were not educated in any meaningful sense.
Basic schooling, then, was being used as a tool of social control, not individual betterment. For the ruling classes, made up of royals, aristocrats, and industrialists, the existence of a popular and populist literature was worrying, for it was getting the poorly educated to stick their noses in books and maybe start liking to read. And if they started to understand? The very possibility posed a dire threat to a geopolitical social order invested in the hierarchy of the races, the strict observation of class boundaries, and a gendered social sphere where a woman’s place was in the home.
A half-century earlier, the anxieties swirling around the power of pop literature had been brilliantly distilled by Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein." Her nameless Creature did not terrify (upper- and middle-class) readers because he murdered in the name of revenge, but because he was literally made up of the body parts of the underclasses: the criminalized poor, sick, and indigent. Instead of knowing his (subordinate) place, the Creature ran away and effectively taught himself how to read. He had three books: "Plutarch’s Lives," Milton’s "Paradise Lost" and Goethe’s "The Sorrows of Young Werther." This last was a bestseller in the modern sense, meaning it was an instant hit that set fashion trends, and moralists worried it was a bad influence on the young people.
Shelley’s Creature embodied the greatest of existential threats to the British Empire, raising the unsettling possibility that if the great unwashed truly learned how to read, they’d figure out exactly how they were being exploited and, with their greater physical strength and numbers, band together and handily overthrow their social betters.
Add an explicit racial component to that fear, and welcome to the 20th century. In "The Turner Diaries," a fictional 1970 American diary written by a young white male protagonist, Jews and African-Americans have risen up and committed themselves to the genocide of Whites. A violent resistance movement springs up and, predictably, wins, re-establishing White Supremacy in the end. Hmm. Written by a neo-Nazi, this self-published bestseller inspired the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. But was the book really to blame for what remains this country’s deadliest act of domestic terrorism, or is it just an easy scapegoat, used to shift blame and avoid examining the deeper social problems embedded in the structures of everyday life?
Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr.’s now-infamous meme likening refugees to poisoned Skittles, prompted The Intercept to point out that this analogy is rooted in Nazi children’s literature. The book is 1938's "Der Giftpilz" (The Toadstool), in which a boy named Franz learns about Jews from his mother:
“However they disguise themselves, or however friendly they try to be, affirming a thousand times their good intentions to us, one must not believe them. Jews they are and Jews they remain. For our Volk [people] they are poison.”
“Like the poisonous mushroom!” says Franz.
“Yes, my child! Just as a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire Volk [people].
The book’s Nazi author, Julius Streicher, also ran a virulently anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Stürmer, which he used to direct attacks against specific individuals while relentlessly promoting dehumanizing imagery of Jews. He was hung at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Not for writing "The Toadstool" but for publishing, under the spurious guise of journalism and with the backing of the Third Reich, words so poisonous that millions died as a result. It wasn’t one Jew that destroyed the German Volk, in other words, but his 600,000 subscribers, along with all those who conspired in the Holocaust with their silence.
Admittedly, "The Turner Diaries" and "The Toadstool" aren’t household titles in this country, but the same can’t be said of "Little House on the Prairie." As Christine Woodside noted in her startling essay for Politico, "Little House on the Prairie" deliberately, and often didactically, advanced a Libertarian agenda while blasting away at the heavy hand of government.
The story of how "Little House" — one of the most beloved series of books in American history — entwined itself with the growth of free-market conservatism is one of the most dramatic, and little-appreciated, examples of the way literature can shape national politics. It might not be quite true that the "Little House" stories built the conservatism we know today, but it surely wouldn’t be the same without them.
In real life, Woodside explains, "Little House on the Prairie" was the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Koch Brothers, and Ronald Reagan, who were directly connected in various ways.
Trump both inherits and exploits this ideological framing of real Americans who feel besieged by people of color on one side, and betrayed by the government on the other. The "Little House on the Prairie" series also illustrates how it’s possible for racism to remain invisible to so many well-intentioned liberals, because for centuries it’s been condoned by the books that shape their collective consciousness. The still-popular children's book series, which would become a beloved television show, not only paternalistically disdains African Americans but is “brimming with casual racism about Native Americans,” observes Laura June Topolsky.
They are described as “savages” and “wild,” and both Ma and the family dog dislike them openly. “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asks on page 46. “I just don’t like them, and don’t lick your fingers, Laura,” Ma said.
The Ingalls family are Manifest Destiny personified. The Osage Indians they encounter are a brooding pack of inconvenience, and just one Native American even gets the role of the “noble savage” — a chief who supports the settlers against his own people to keep peace. Pa implies the worst about them (on page 146) when he tells Laura and her sister that if given the opportunity, the Indians would certainly off the family pooch, Jack, but “that’s not all,” he says. “You girls remember this: You do as you’re told, no matter what happens.”
Topolksy doesn’t remember “any of this” from reading these books as a kid. She also recognizes that she didn’t grasp the predominantly white Christian worldview that the series was deliberately advancing.
I can relate. Having grown up in the church, I used to read whatever was on the vestry’s bookshelves — bibles, hymnals, Paul Tillich, Emanuel Swedenborg, Edgar Cayce, the Upper Room, Corrie ten Boom, what have you — and worked my way through entire holdings of tiny-town libraries where most of the books were moldy pulp fictions donated before the Crash of 1929. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that these nameless thousands of forgotten books, plus beloved stories such as the “Little Match Girl,” “The Little Mermaid” and other stories by Hans Christian Andersen, were alike in that they were Christian morality tales, and that Charles Kingsley’s "The Water Babies" and C.S. Lewis’s "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" were not only terrific reads but skilled exercises in theology.
It’s not that any of these books are intrinsically not worth reading, despite the fact that they would now be accused of being politically incorrect inside today’s supposedly godless liberal New York City publishing world. I support creativity, not censorship, and my fight isn’t against Christian conservatism or even Trump, but against mindless obedience, credulity, and willful ignorance. Where you run into trouble is when there is only one book, the book, which turns into a mantra, an oath of loyalty, a talisman, a shield, and, when it all goes to hell, a scapegoat. An episode of classic Star Trek, “A Piece of the Action,” explored the consequences of a single book when a starship accidentally leaves behind a copy of "Chicago Mobs of the Twenties," which the Ioatian people simply refer to as "The Book." Following it slavishly, they’ve turned into gangsters, and things fall apart in the end, but it’s a comedic episode, so — ha!
Here’s the confusing part: In terms of cultural practice, The Book isn’t necessarily singular. It’s possible to read tens of thousands of books by different authors, in different genres and with various plot-lines, and still be reading the same book because they all share the same assumptions and worldview. (This epiphany happens in dating too, when suddenly you realize that you’re attracted to the same person over and over even though it's technically not the same individual, and that’s why your relationships keep failing.)
What’s a stake now in Young Adult literature, which is the most popular of popular literature, is the chance to change a cultural status quo where a predominantly white industry still supports The Book being written over and over again. An opportunity for writers to shape political narratives that not only fully vests ordinary people with agency but allows them the (subversive) potential for humanity. For readers to understand themselves as heroes in the battle for ideas, not merely as consumers inside an ephemeral celebrity culture. For all of us to grasp that to read, now, is to take risks, because a society without educated readers is on a suicide mission.
We need diverse books, then, not as a slogan but as a political reality, lest the Creature turn unwilling into a monster, leaving his former master in a bleak and frozen wilderness, lost in a sea of whiteness.