The display shelves in a library are a way we librarians promote books for different reasons. We put books there to help draw attention to forgotten gems, to inspire someone to read something they might not otherwise, to winnow selection down from what might be an overwhelming choice. In my library, we have displays based on genre in fiction and on topic in non-fiction. We also have staff displays, where each librarian has a shelf to put out books he or she loves; filling my staff display shelf is one of my favorite parts of my job, and I think we each unknowingly have little fan bases who check our shelves first before wandering the rest of the library. Throughout the library there are also new book displays, where we put (YES!) new books.
A few weeks ago, a patron noticed that our non-fiction new book display had a grouping of books that shared a similar theme. There was one about common core, one about Gloria Steinem, one called The Essential Bernie Sanders. Two about Jesus: Rescuing Jesus is about how Christianity is changing to become more progressive and inclusive, while Jesus Behaving Badly attempts to look at Christ through an objective lens (was He a revolutionary? was He racist?). Perhaps the two scariest books were Atmosphere of Hope, which discusses possible solutions to the climate change crisis, and What is Islam, which discusses how “Muslims have historically conceived of and lived with Islam as norms and truths that are at once contradictory yet coherent.”
This patron took a picture of these objectionable books and then posted it on her Facebook page. She felt driven to drawn public awareness to the biased, left-wing, ultra-radical ideals of the Library. Then, just to make sure we were all aware, she posted the picture to the library’s Facebook page, along with a link to all of the comments and objections her friends had made.
Reading these threads, I was stunned. Absolutely, jaw-droppingly stunned.
And not just by her failure to understand the concept of a “new book” display. Or to see the humor in it—it’s kind of funny that so many “left wing” books ended up next to each other on a shelf which is essentially random on everything other than publication date. She somehow got the idea that the new book display was managed by one specific librarian (who her friends called illiterate) who is obviously trying to poison and control the minds of all thinking people who come to the library. And sure, the general population might not understand that there are many librarians responsible for buying new books, not just one. Nor that we take our jobs seriously, and that one of our roles is to represent modes of thinking that reflect a wide array of people, not just one group. But there is a sign, a very large sign, right on the top of the display, that reads “new books.” It doesn’t say “our communist ideals” or “liberal forever!” It just says “new books.”
No, what stunned me was the response of her friends.
One commenter said the books about Jesus were written by anti-Christs. Another said that the “anti-Christian and pro-Muslim, pro-feminism pro-communist and pro-climate-scam” display must have been put together by Obama. Several said something along the lines of “I no longer go to the public library because the books there are wicked.” Many suggested doing something to make the books unavailable for anyone to check out (scatter them around the library on the wrong shelves, check them out and then don’t return them for as long as possible, hide them behind other books).
Only their tone suggested burning them.
I didn’t know.
I really didn’t know that people like this truly exist. Don’t all people instinctively understand that society cannot only be made of one way of thinking? Or is it just that I choose to surround myself with more open-minded individuals?
Maybe it’s just that I don’t think I could stand to be friends with such close-minded people. I don’t know if that, ironically, makes me close minded. But I couldn’t ever find common ground with someone who fails to understand that there is a variety of ways of thinking about the world. Or that objectivity helps you to see things more clearly—yes, even Jesus (whom I love). Climate-change deniers make me almost unbearably angry; the argument is so head-in-the-sand asinine that, all apologies, if you seriously feel that way I’m not going to hang out with you. Not even on Facebook.
Even more inexcusable to me is the blatant judging-a-book-by-its-cover in their responses. None of them know anything about the books, other than the covers. None of them would have likely bothered to even pick one up, read its cover copy, and think about its premise. I don’t understand this way of thinking, this refusal to look at anything other than the surface of things. To me, it is built on fear. If, for example, I really believed that climate change was a hoax, created by…well, I don’t know who is benefiting from this supposed hoax, or what they are gaining, but will go with that nebulous “someone” getting “something” from it…if I truly believed that, why would I be afraid to read someone else’s point of view? In fact, wouldn’t I want to read it, so I could have more points to discredit?
It is only when one’s belief or way of thinking is shaky that one is afraid of looking at different perspectives.
If I have learned one thing from being a librarian, it is this: a book is “good” or “bad” based only on individual readers. This is why we need many books with many different perspectives. The people on that Facebook thread are too narrowly defining what makes a “good” book: to them, the only good book is the one that reflects back what they already think. Everything else is bad, and as they are certain of it, their job now is to protect anyone else from reading such “bad” books. Because everyone else must think exactly like they think.
I stewed about that Facebook thread all day. I composed spiteful, sarcastic responses in my head; only my professionalism kept me from posting one. Then I went home and told Kendell about it, who laughed at the shallow thinking and reminded me that I can’t change them. People think what they think.
But oh, how I want to change them.
Because as the night went on—the night of Utah’s caucuses—I started equating the people in that Facebook thread, their vitriol and their fear, their narrow-mindedness and their surety that theirs is the only right way of being, with the supporters of Donald Trump. Doesn’t his slogan “make America great again” have to do with one answer? By “great” I think he means how it used to be in, say, the 40s or 50s, when American society was dominated by rich white men. When women were mostly in their rightful place—at home with the children—while men ruled the world. When black people knew their place, when Hispanics stayed on the other side of the border, when gay people kept themselves properly hidden. When handicapped people were the brunt of jokes.
“Great again” is a return to when the world made sense to one specific group of people, and the voters who support Trump want that world back. It hinges on the word “again”; it wants to go backward instead of forward.
They want singularity instead of multitudes. They want one way of being and everyone else can bugger off. They want the stereotype of “American citizen” to be the only American citizen.
They want one answer to be the only answer.
Deep down, that way of thinking doesn’t only disturb and anger me. It terrifies me. It reminds me of something Margaret Atwood said about utopias: “A union was a Utopian idea. So was Nazi Germany. So was Cambodia. And there’s a whole list of them, of people who thought, ‘Well, we have to build the perfect society, and we know what it’s like, but there’s a catch—we have to eliminate a bunch of people first, because they’re getting in the way.’”
An ideal society cannot be perfect, because “perfect” requires a single way of being right. An ideal society requires multiplicity. It requires messiness and upheaval and clashing ideas. Only one idea—that way lies genocide.
I think multiplicity is equally terrifying to some, because yes: our current way of being isn’t simple, old-fashioned American whatever. Living in a society with multiple mores requires that you understand your own mores. It means your ideas and beliefs will be challenged. It demands that you be flexible and open and even loving and accepting. It means becoming comfortable with the fact that your way of being is not the only way.
But it is also glorious.
It means that happiness, success, or goodness aren’t achieved by only one route—and that means more access to happiness, success, and goodness. It means that if you are afraid of feminism, you can continue being afraid of it because no one can take that fear away from you. It also means that I am free to continue believing in and promoting feminism. When we narrow ourselves to only one way of thinking, we remove other avenues to understanding and knowledge.
I want American to move forward in being great. Not to go backward to some idealized version of greatness. To something sanitized and monochromatic and very, very white. I think our greatness lies within our multitudinous aspect. We have always been a country of migrants, it’s just that now, the migrants are no longer white Europeans. Our greatness lies—or, it can if we allow it—in our ability to see things in many different ways.
Our greatness is found in libraries, where yes: we have left-wing books. We also have right wing, and moderate. We have books with completely whack-a-doodle theories, but if that’s your thing, it’s there for you. If your thing is bodice-rippers, if your thing is gentle fiction, if your thing is art history or wicca or crocheting with dog hair, it's there for you. My thing—literary novels, and poetry, and essays, and writing about women’s rights, and memoirs and how-to-run-well and quilting and gardening—my thing is there, too. That they are all in the same library, that they may even lean upon each other on the shelves: the fact that more than one way of thinking exists doesn’t damage any individual way of thinking.
Maybe libraries themselves are a metaphor for America’s greatness: a collection of many different ideas. As a librarian, part of my work is making sure that all of the ideas are accessible. As a citizen, part of my work is respecting the varieties of our communities. That is a greatness that Trump and his followers, that the commenters on that Facebook thread, are terrified of. Their narrow ideals would shape us into something equally narrow, rigid and unyielding. The very opposite of greatness.