On book challenges and the carless life
First the political, then the personal.
It’s Banned Books Week. Props to the authors, bookstores, and libraries who are holding events to call attention to the recent surge in book challenges at U.S. schools and libraries. [If you’re here in the DMV, the D.C. Public Library has a great roster of talks lined up this week.]
Two just-released reports from the American Library Association (ALA) and PEN America confirm, if we needed confirmation, just how widespread these challenges have become, as Hannah Natanson reported for the Washington Post:
The association’s report documents 681 attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different books in schools between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year….The PEN America report found that, between July 2021 and June 2022, there were 2,532 attempted book bans targeting 1,648 unique books….Both reports found that the texts being challenged are overwhelmingly those written by or about people of color or LGBTQ individuals.
There’s a lot more to say about all of this, including how to deal effectively with these challenges—which, as Natanson’s article points out, sometimes take place outside formal channels. Books can disappear from shelves without explanation or public input. There are sinister forces at work here, and we should all be paying attention.
[Related: Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, whose library and publishing commentary is some of the best out there, has some understandable reservations about BBW. A table display of banned books is a nice gesture, but gestures are not enough. In a recent Twitter thread, Guy called on library administrators to “make sure you're giving equal attention to your policies and procedures, ready to support and defend your staff” in the face of book challenges.]
What else can be done? Some fiction writers have taken the fight to the pages of their books. In time for Banned Books Week, the New York Times Book Review asked me to write about a timely pair of YA novels, Attack of the Black Rectangles by Amy Sarig King and The Philosophy Resistance Squad by Robert Grant:
Two new novels test the idea that asking “Why?” can be the best defense against grown-ups who push groupthink over free thought. They arrive at a perilous moment for kids’ fundamental right to read. Parents, school boards and politicians around the United States have mounted increasingly aggressive challenges to “dangerous” books, which usually means those that deal with racism, gender or sexuality.
You can read the full review here.
Speaking of the NYTBR: This essay by Elisabeth Egan on “The Enduring Wisdom of ‘Goodnight Moon’”—about how that bedtime classic still speaks to the parents of newly adult children—hit me in all the best ways. I’m a month into the empty-nest phase of life, and I won’t lie: It’s taken some getting used to.
My kids’ departure for college coincided with a lull on the writing/work front, which means I have had too much time on my hands to think about how quiet the house is. I try to resist the urge to check “Find My Friends” to see where the offspring happen to be at, say, 2 p.m. on a Tuesday or, worse, in the wee hours of the weekend. I didn’t want to run a domestic surveillance state when my kids lived under the same roof with me; I don’t want to morph into a panopticon parent now.
Parenting doesn’t end, of course, when your kids leave home. My spouse and I have done some parenting in absentia: sent off a few care packages, had a few FaceTime calls, and kept alive the family group chat (Team Jed, named after our late lamented beagle). Beyond that, it’s going to take some time to figure out what I’m doing with myself. That’s normal, I know, but I feel aimless, which is not a feeling I enjoy. I’m vulnerable these days to regretful thoughts about times past (the kids’ childhoods, my own college days, things left undone, opportunities unseized). I might be a little depressed. (Shout-out to my therapist and my friends—what would I do without you?)
I won’t be filling the vacant hours with a lot of road trips. The family wagon went to school this fall with our daughter. She scored a parking space in her apartment building this year; with both kids now in the same college town, we figured they’d have more daily uses for wheels than we would.
My spouse and I decided to give life sans whip a try. We’re fortunate to be able to do that: Neither of us currently has a commute or a disability that requires reliable access to a car, and we can do most of our daily errands on foot, by bike, or by Metro. (Heck, DC even hit the number-three spot on a recent list of best U.S. cities for going carless.)
Unlike a lot of people in this automobile-fixated country, we live in a city that’s walkable and increasingly bikeable (though still too often dangerous for cyclists). Our house sits two blocks from a Metro station and three blocks from a grocery store. And when we do need a car, Zipcar or another car-sharing service can probably supply that need.
Going carless has felt a little inconvenient, yes, mostly because I’d gotten lazy about everyday routines. Want to hit the gym? Hop in the car. Need to mail a care package to my college kid? Hop in the car. Got a book-club meeting across town? Hop in the car!
Now that I can’t just hop in the car, though, I’m learning to appreciate the alternatives. If the point is to get some exercise at the gym, why not walk or bike there anyway if I’m able to? It’s nearly impossible to find parking at the post office; I can be there on foot in 10 minutes and not have to circle for a space. I can even get to my book club across town via Metro, though the trip takes energy and time I may not have every month, especially once cold, slushy weather sets in.
I pay closer attention when I’m not on four wheels, in part because I have to. On a bike, you’re one pothole or garbage truck or flung-open car door away from disaster, unless you live in a place like Amsterdam that actively provides for safe biking. A nervous biker, I feel vulnerable when I’m on two wheels—but also more connected to whatever’s on the route from Point A to Point B and back again.
When I’m not shut into the metal box of a car, I’m that much closer to what’s happening on the sidewalks and in the front yards of my neighborhood. On the bike, I’ll spot a friend or neighbor on the street and stop for a chat. I’ve expanded my mental map of the city: which routes have good bike lanes and which have dangerous traffic patterns and where the worst potholes are.
I do miss the car a little, not just because it makes some errands easier. It’s a black 2017 VW wagon with a manual transmission, a feature not easy to find even five years ago. Our next car, whenever we get it, will be an EV, if we can find/afford one, and stick shift won’t be an option at all. I know this is a shift we need to make, given the climate crisis. Still, I’ll miss the tactile pleasure, the sense of connection with the machine, that I get from driving stick. (Read Ian Bogost’s recent essay on “The End of Manual Transmission” for a deeper take on this.)
Meanwhile, it’s just me and my vélo (or, as the Cambridge French-English Dictionary has it, my véhicule à deux roues sans moteur).
*PreFab Sprout fans will recognize this as the U.S. title of an album that’s been a fave in my household for a long time. The U.K. title? Steve McQueen. Whatever you call it, it’s still worth a listen.
What I’ve been reading/watching/listening to—
—The Sandman on Netflix. I roll my eyes when someone declares themselves obsessed with a show (or a fashion trend or pretty much anything else), but I’ve been enthralled by Sandman in a way I’m rarely enthralled by anything.
I’ve hit a run of good novels lately, including—
—The Children of Men by P.D. James (audiobook). A dystopian classic that my book club picked. For once I managed to finish the book *before* the meeting.
Even if you’re not a Kennedy enthusiast — even if your grandmother didn’t have a framed picture of J.F.K. in her kitchen, as mine did, alongside one of Pope John Paul II — this stylish, sexy, nostalgic story will linger like Jackie’s signature scent of Pall Malls and Chateau Krigler 12. It’s a complicated bouquet of bitter and sweet.
—Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. I picked up a signed first edition of a special hardcover edition that Mandel and her publisher, Knopf, did for independent booksellers; the edition features bonus material that’s a chapter from a fictional novel by one of the main characters. Clever idea—props to a major author and publisher for creatively encouraging readers to buy the book through indie channels).
Ah, but what did I think of the actual story, you ask? I’m going to cheat here and share what I put on Goodreads:
Having loved STATION ELEVEN and having had mixed feelings about THE GLASS HOTEL, I wasn't sure what to expect. But I loved this one: for Mandel's world-building and her deft handling of an intricate but satisfying time-travel plot (shades of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS, though very different stylistically); for how the separate storylines and characters gently but insistently bump up against each other, affecting each other's lives from era to era; for its reflections on how life unfurls and unravels in pandemic times (not just our own); and for Mandel's quietly graceful writing, which captures the characters' shifts in feeling and experience as they experience personal and global dislocations. Left me feeling a bit melancholy, but not unhopeful.
Speaking of GR, if you read Clutter and enjoyed it, do me a favor and say something nice about it over there.
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