The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Take all books off the shelves. They’re just too dangerous.

Books make you cry, show you despair in a handful of dust, counterfeit life in strange ways and cheat you with shadows. (iStock)
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I regret to say they are putting the books back on the shelves now in Virginia, the threatened books, the banned ones. They have evaluated them and found them to contain no threat. (Reports of their containing pornography were greatly exaggerated, or perhaps adjudicators were simply not flipping fast enough.)

This is no good. Such books are bad. Maybe all books are bad, not just the challenged ones. Books follow you home and pry open your head and rearrange the things inside. They make you feel things, sometimes, hope and grief and shame and confusion; they tell you that you’re not alone, or that you are, that you shouldn’t feel ashamed, or that you should; replace your answers with questions or questions with answers. This feels dangerous to do, a strange operation to perform on yourself, especially late at night when everyone else in the house is sleeping.

They are an insidious and deadly poison. Years after you read them, they come back and bother you late at night. They clang around inside your skull. They make strange things familiar to you and familiar things strange again. They have no respect for the boundaries of your dreams. They put turns of phrase into your gut where you digest them slowly and regurgitate them where they are least expected.

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They make you cry, show you despair in a handful of dust, counterfeit life in strange ways and cheat you with shadows. Nothing happens in them at all, or they take you to hell and take you back out of it. They teach you how to fold a paper airplane or what is the wrong dress to wear. When people in them do things that are wrong, you are just as upset as you would be if you knew them.

Some of them, of course, pose less of a risk. They take you nowhere; they contain only stale, bland, erroneous facts; they are full of people you dislike, and you understand them less when you put them down than when you started. These are less threatening. Their illusions are less complete.

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People should not be left long unsupervised with books. You can be riding a bus and miss eight stops because you are not riding a bus at all — you are somewhere entirely different watching somebody throw an important piece of jewelry into a volcano. Books give you the faulty idea that you can safely travel in realms of gold or voyage leagues underwater without getting wet; they make it impossible to be certain that your new classmate is not a rat under a series of raincoats; they send you pingponging into the past where you could do considerable harm if allowed to wander; they dispatch you into futures that don’t exist and trick you into thinking they could. Some of them are terrifying. Some of them are stomach-churning. All of them are treacherous, especially if you are reading them when walking. Don’t read them when walking.

Let me tell you about something that a book did: It convinced me that the things inside it were true; it told me so many lies that I started to believe it. I loved it; it infuriated me; I broke its spine in half. Books have taken me into dark woods and the bellies of whales and spat me out dazed and blinking into my own living room and knocked me around backward and forward through time and delivered me gossip from the distant past and facts from the recent present.

Books give you recipes for living, and some of the recipes are good and others taste foul the first time you try them. You read them with friends and come away with entirely different ideas of what has happened. They are uncontainable, uncontrollable, except if you never open them.

Burning them is odd. You would think that objects of such power would give off extraordinary heat or light, or explode, but they just burn as though unaware of what they are made of. They go off shelves and onto banned lists in the same manner, quietly, as though not conscious of their power.

You are right to be frightened of them, and it is very bad they are being brought back. You will realize they are much too dangerous when you think of all they can do.

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