Deep Thought: Bibliophobia, Its Cause and Cure

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Deep Thought: Bibliophobia, Its Cause and Cure

A group of anime characters gathered around a monster that has landed in their transporter. They're wondering what to do with it.
What the AI came up with
when I said
Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

Jesus (Matthew 15:11, Authorised Version)
Oh, be careful, little eyes, what you see. . .

Multitudinous church folk

The other day, the folks at Appodlachia (a podcast from the Appalachians, get it?) posted a clip in gentle mockery of the West Virginia lady who insisted on reading aloud, at a public meeting, the passages of a book that offended her, in order to demonstrate why said book should not be in a library. People: if a book offends you, resist the temptation to read the offending parts aloud in a public place. There is no way you can do this effectively. You will look a fool, and this lady did.

I appreciate the dedicated young people at the Appodlachia podcast, and so I replied in support of their criticism. I added a quote from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' 1938 book The Yearling that was probably shocking at the time. I know it startled me when I read it as a child. Several people 'liked' the quote, and several didn't. The ones who didn't posted quite rude remarks.

Before blocking the rude folk so that they couldn't continue to harass me with playground taunts, I did what I usually do, which was to read their bios and say a quick prayer for them. After all, I was never going to interact with them again in this world. Predictably, all of them expressed affection for a particular political movement. But the last woman – the one who had sent me a .gif that proclaimed, 'You are so dumb!' – had adorned her bio with the statement that she 'loved Jesus.' That gave me pause.

It's not that I question the fact that someone can love Jesus and still be unkind in an unguarded moment. But sending a .gif isn't a completely thoughtless act. You have to open the .gif box and search for those things. Or save them. Do you think that person saved a .gif like that – one that says, 'You are so dumb!' – for the express purpose of insulting random strangers?

Now, I don't want to cast aspersions on anyone, and I'm all for diversity of thought. But I find it impossible to engage in constructive dialogue with schoolyard taunts. Hence the block. So I'm left with the question I've been asking myself since I was a kid, back in the last millennium: why are people so afraid of what other people (especially kids) get to read?

By the time was I was 12, I'd learned from books that there had been a number of wars I personally disapproved of. I'd learned about the atom bomb, and who it had been dropped on. I'd learned about the Holocaust. I'd read about murders and horrors aplenty. I'd also read about acts of peace and love and heroism. No book that I'd read had made me want to go around cursing or committing acts of violence – they'd only made me more aware of the human condition.

By the time I was 16, I'd read about even more wars, slavery, the Marquis de Sade, the Sixties' sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, many more unsettling concepts. I still hadn't done anything antisocial.

I've pondered the question of why some people are scared of what's in the library, and I've come to a conclusion based on decades of observation. I think that, when it comes to the printed word, there are two kinds of readers: those who read to learn, and those who read to be reinforced in their beliefs. The second kind of reader is afraid of books they don't agree with: they think reading those words will hurt them in some way.

I can remember the day I consciously practised resistant reading. I was 7 and it was all AA Milne's fault. I picked up a copy of a book about a stuffed bear that lived in a wood. The story was being improvised by an adult and told to a child. After a couple of pages, I put down the book in disgust.

I found the book unnecessarily 'cute'. I found it devoid of an understanding of nature (I was a fan of Thornton W Burgess). Worst of all, I found it patronising.

'This is a book written by an adult, for other adults,' I thought. 'They probably think it's funny to foist this off on kids. Phooey.' And I put the book back on the shelf and that writer on my personal 'do not read' list.

Yes, I realise that UK readers regard this work as a beloved classic. I also realise that a considerable fortune has been made in animated films. My seven-year-old self stands by this assessment and recommends Old Mother West Wind as a palate-cleanser. But no, I still wouldn't ban the Milne books.

It also occurs to me that people who are afraid of what's in the library may be suffering from 'social anxiety' – the fear that things are changing too fast for them to safely keep up. They may be afraid that their children will grow up with different attitudes from themselves.

Don't worry: they will. And no book ban is going to prevent it, either.

Teach your parents well

Their children's hell will slowly go by

And feed them on your dreams

The one they pick's the one you'll know by. . .

– Graham Nash

Apparently there is something called 'library anxiety'. The term was coined in 1986 by Constance Mellon1. Librarians try to figure out how to help patrons overcome this anxiety caused by libraries. I used to make my students join me in the library for tours. Yes, of course half of them skipped that day and then turned in lousy papers.

I really didn't believe this when I looked it up, but there is something called bibliophobia – fear of books. I thought they were making this up, but I guess people can be afraid of anything. The Cleveland Clinic says there are treatments available. They also claim that there is such as thing as hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, but I swear they just made that up. Unless that's a major cause of emigration in Germany.

I'm kind of wondering now if the fear of certain kinds of books – the kind that say things you disagree with – might not be related to a tendency to approve of propaganda?

'This book is full of lies. Like that one about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.'

'Yes, but they're good lies. It teaches kids that George Washington was. . . er. . . '

'A very truthful person? And they should be, too?'

'Well, er. . . yes.'

Have a good week, folks. And read a good book – or a bad one. They won't bite.

Deep Thought Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

12.02.24 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Mellon, Constance A. "Attitudes: The Forgotten Dimension in Library Instruction," Library Journal 113 (Sept 1, 1988): 137-38, cited in "Library Fear Deconstructed: Overcoming Library Anxiety", a presentation given at the 28th Annual Conference on the First Year Experience, presumably at the University of South Carolina, presumably by a librarian, although none of that information appears in the .pdf I accessed. I regret the omission.

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