Emily Knox has good news to share.
The path to salvation, she says, can be found in books, through the act of reading widely, with an open mind, and thinking critically.
She also has a warning: A far darker destination may await a society that fails to protect the freedom to read, and to experience multiple interpretations of the world through the written word.
Today in the United States, a reactionary tendency to shut the doors of the mind, and deny the freedom to read, is making headlines. First it was Virginia, where last November a Spotsylvania County school-board member called for LGBTQ-oriented books in school libraries to be “thrown in a fire.” Barely three months later we’re treated to the spectacle of the McMinn County, Tennessee, school board voting 10-0 to remove Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir “Maus” due to some salty language and a glimpse of naked (mouse) body — and this, unnervingly enough, on the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Book challenges and local bans are common enough in the United States. Yet they often are, according to Knox, a professor at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, more a “symbolic” declaration of local values than an effective policy position.
In fact, local book challenges and bans can raise awareness of the works in question; the Tennessee school board has, ironically, sent Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists.
Still, successful book challenges can take their toll locally, and to blithely call for burning books is to take a step toward a far more dire societal breakdown.
Emily Knox isn’t just an academic: She’s also an advocate, serving as a board member of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and formerly as president of the Freedom to Read Foundation. She spoke with The Fabulist at length about the power of reading, the conflicts around intellectual freedom and First Amendment guarantees, and the nature of book banning and book burning as ritualized acts of denial that demand response.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and continuity.
The Fabulist: Perhaps we can get started with a little more background on your work and interests. What brought you to this field and this particular focus on information science and intellectual freedom?
Emily Knox: My mother was a high school librarian for 32 years — she retired not too long ago — and every year we would celebrate or honor Banned Books Week. So she would bring me the list of books that were banned. And they often were my very favorite books — I was a huge Judy Blume fan when I was growing up. This always just stuck in my mind that all of these books that I loved were on this list.
When I went to college I was a religious studies major. I was very interested in the Christian right. Eventually, I decided to become a librarian like my mom. It’s a way of looking at the world through the lens of information and thinking about how we organize knowledge more generally. I was a theological librarian at the General Theological Seminary at the Episcopal church in New York. It was fun to live in Brooklyn, and work in Chelsea.
I then decided to get my doctoral degree at Rutgers. I always knew I wanted to study book banning — what I really wanted to do was to combine all of my interests, thinking about religion, reading, and why do people ban books? What is the point?
And I was able to do that at Rutger’s quite broadly, and bring in a lot of different facets to think about what I consider to be a fundamental issue in our world, which is knowledge circulation: what do we want to circulate? How do we base our identities on the knowledge that we have? And what role do public institutions play in that circulation?
One of the quotes I saw on your website was to the effect that people who want to ban books believe in their power. That’s an amazing thing to say. I’ve never thought of it that way.
It’s difficult to talk about reading; reading is so fundamental to our world, at this point in time, that it’s actually difficult to talk about. What does it mean to read? How do we think about reading?
So I look at it from a negative point of view: When people want to take reading away, we can understand more about what knowledge is. How do we think about knowledge? Look at when people try to remove certain types of knowledge from circulation.
So I absolutely believe this: The people who try to ban books truly believe that books are powerful, that reading is a powerful practice, that reading can change who you are.
And this is really where I bring in my religious studies background. I think about the Reformation and the doctrine of sola scriptura. I think that is really a foundation for understanding how we understand reading. What the reformers were saying is that the only thing between you and salvation is your ability to read. And, in fact, if you read the Bible, everything that you need for the salvation of your soul is available. This is kind of unprecedented, you know, the idea that reading really is really determining not just who you are right now, but who you would be — what happens to your soul.
I think that we have removed some of the more sacred aspects of that. But that understanding of reading continues in our society — that reading is what makes you a person.
I mean, even if you think about the myths and disinformation arguments — yeah, some of them are about like videos on YouTube — but a lot of times it’s really about what’s popping up on Facebook. What are people reading? How do people get in conspiracy theories? It’s not just simply that they are watching videos on YouTube, they also read something — it defines who they are.
And what I tried to get is just having vocabulary to discuss this phenomena of why reading is powerful.
I was unfamiliar with the idea of sola scriptura and reading as a path to salvation. It puts a lot in the hands of the reader. Because you can read stuff that would not necessarily agree with the Bible …
Which made the Reformers quite nervous … and so they reinserted interpretation into Bible reading. So yes, you could do this. But you should also read commentaries on the Bible that have been given the imprimatur of whatever church you belong to. So they themselves realize what a dangerous concept this was.
I guess that’s real knowledge-of-good-and-evil stuff right there.
It seems like having authoritative interpretation is a key factor. But I suppose it would still be a risk for somebody who advocates a way of life to leave it in the realm of interpretation, even with their own authoritative stamp on a certain school of interpretation.
Yes. So what I use here I use Stanley Fish’s theories of interpretive communities. And interpretive strategies that people bring to reading. This is also from [Louise] Rosenblatt — what is the baggage that we bring to a particular text?
And we share particular interpretive strategies with some people and not with others. So, you know, thinking about a text, the text is never just sitting out there. It’s really what you do with it.
This is something — if I go into my religious studies — that was somewhat lost. When we looked into when fundamentalists became prominent, they believe that there’s only one interpretive strategy for understanding the Bible. This is, of course, not true in the medieval ages, but this is what I see in the book banners — actually, challengers: They believe that there’s only one way to interpret what they see on the page. And that’s actually the argument that all challengers make: “Well, when I look at this, I feel this way, I believe this thing, and if you look at this page, you will have the same interpretation that I do.”
I call this monosemic interpretation, when in fact, we actually live in a polysemic world where there are many different interpretations.
But book challengers never make that argument. The argument is always, “Not only will you interpret this way, but in fact, the effects of you interpreting this way will lead to this harmful outcome.”
As you’re speaking about interpretation, and authoritative interpretation and official frames of reference for interpreting text, I also was thinking about media literacy, as a framework that puts a lot of the decision-making power or the interpretive power in the hands of the reader. You know, not so much giving them, “Here’s what you should think when you read it,” but rather, “Here’s how you should be perceiving the information on the page in order to make sense of it.”
I have lots of thoughts about this. So actually, I hope I’ll be on sabbatical this fall. And I hope to be able to write a paper about mis- and disinformation, which really has to do with interpretation. So a lot of the arguments I see are like, well, “these are facts,” you know, and not really taking into account how Popper talks about how science —
Yes, yeah, about how science is not just the facts, but it is the interpretation of those facts.
Lots of room in there for mis- and disinformation.
When we talk about media literacy we don’t say, “if I just read this to you, if you read this, you’ll see the facts and you’ll agree with these facts because they are facts.”
The way I introduce this to my students is that I say, “Okay, it’s 50 degrees outside. Is it cold?” Some people will say “yes,” some people will say “no.” But the fact is that it’s 50 degrees — what do you want to do with that?
A lot of times, when I see people looking at things like misinformation or disinformation, they’re very focused on, “Well, this person just simply has the facts wrong.” But in fact, a lot of times, they don’t always have the facts wrong. It’s their interpretation of the facts that we see as being incorrect. So, it’s not true that people aren’t harmed by the coronavirus vaccine, for example, right? There are people who have had adverse effects to those.
That doesn’t mean that you will have adverse effects. But when we say well, “that’s not true,” or “it’s so minuscule,” you aren’t actually working with that person’s interpretation of that particular fact. You need to talk about their fear that this will happen to them. What is the actual fear and anxiety that they have about this vaccine?
The media was saying, “Well, this is an mRNA vaccine,” a meaningless term to most people. When I hear mRNA, if I went to school, all I hear is, “Well, that has something to do with DNA, right? And so if it’s DNA, it’s genetics. Is this vaccine messing with my genetics?”
No, it’s not. But in fact, that person’s interpretation is not off the wall.
And so when I look at things like people challenging books, or coming at a certain set of knowledge from a different point of view than I do, I try to see where they’re coming from. I try to understand their interpretive community and strategy, which is often based in fear and anxiety about change, or about what might be happening in the world. And that’s really what I see in these current book challenges as well.
So much subjectivity — the subjective experience of facts. “It’s 50 degrees.”
I just like that one, because it’s not political, but it really brings home that we’re all bringing our own world to it. So a friend of mine, she lives in Austin, Texas. And she’s like, “Yeah, it was cold. It was 60 degrees.” I think it’s 24 or 25 degrees here right now. We had snow. So 50 degrees would be super warm for January in Champaign, Illinois.
You had mentioned monosemic and polysemic, which I’m guessing means a single meaning and multiple meanings in terms of worldview. I was thinking about a corollary comment you made about folks who believe in the power of books, yet who wanted to challenge them or ban them. What can you tell us about their efforts to control and prevent access to books in terms of their relations with other people? Is it a means of enforcing a monosemic worldview — and thereby controlling how people can be in the world?
Yes, it is. It’s really what I see. It is a symbolic practice that relates to people’s values — what they want the values of their community to be. So the reason why [book challenges and bans] happen is that it is very local.
[In] the United States, I don’t think we’ve banned anything since “Ulysses.” But what people are trying to say is: “I pay taxes, my public institutions should reflect my values. So not only should I have say over what I read, my children read, but also what other people read.”
They often are quite concerned about the harm that these books will do to the community at large. They say, “Well, if this gets out, in some way, there’ll be bad effects. My child might be upset, they might have a different opinion of me, they might change their gender, they might think that the United States is a bad place.”
It’s really about, “What do I want the values of my community to be?” And actually, it’s not so much a right or left thing. There’s a lot of discussion in library land about a trans-exclusionary radical feminist book that came out that is anti-trans. And should that book be included in a library collection? And it’s the same arguments — this book will harm somebody, what if the kid who reads it is a trans kid? It’s the idea that any kid who picks this up will interpret this as being “harmful to me, because I feel this way.”
Although we don’t actually know, it could be that someone picks that book up and says, “This is trash,” and just throws it away. Or, “This is helping me make arguments against my family, who feel this way. I’m trying to understand why my family or my community feels this way about trans people.”
But that’s not what comes in when people discuss challenging books. It’s always this idea that, “Someone will read this text, and they’ll have the same feeling I do.”
A real gut-level reaction.
And of course, the irony is that, as you said, book challenges and ban attempts are “symbolic.” They’re not going to be able to truly deny access to these books under any circumstance. And, in fact, the kid’s cellphone is going to take them to stuff that’s way more “radically diverse,” so to speak.
I look at that at two different levels. Yes, it does nothing. The book is available, you can torrent it, you can get it on Amazon, you can borrow it from a friend.
But it does say something about the community, right? It does say: “Our community doesn’t endorse that idea.”
And also it takes access away from people who don’t have resources. So none of these bans affect me in any way. I can just go and get the book from my local bookstore — but I do think about, for example, the kid who is questioning their identity. I mean, they are so unlikely to buy this book and read it at home. But it is very likely that they would go to their library, take it off the shelf and read it in some corner. They would not check it out. It would just be something they would read in the library with all the privacy protection that reading and a library gives you.
And that’s what is lost when we talk about challenging and removing books. And also I think the other thing that’s happening especially with the various diverse books that are being challenged right now, it’s really a sense, like, “Well, you and your history don’t belong.”
It’s this overall pervasive feeling of, “This is illegitimate, what these books say about various people who make up American society.”
But that’s still symbolic, right? It has different levels of effects. It depends on your level of analysis.
Let’s go there. Let’s talk about this extreme moment in American society. We’re seeing a lot of stuff that is crossing over from the symbolic to the actual. We had an insurrection. There’s hate crimes spiking and nasty stuff, people are getting killed — scores of people over the last few years, over gender identity and ethnicity and religion. Is this rising political and cultural extremism we’re seeing affecting your sense of urgency around issues of intellectual freedom and censorship in our society?
Yes and no. I actually don’t think that we have ever reconciled with the Civil War. I know, that seems very old, but thinking Reconstruction [as] a failed experiment, [and] the rise of Jim Crow. And it’s a generation after the Civil Rights Movement — I just don’t think it’s a mistake that we see how tenuous the Voting Rights Act was. That that actually was not a shared value across our country, even though we thought it was.
So we’re just slowly getting there. People don’t always like to talk about generations, but I think we are seeing a generational shift as well as the browning of America. We will have two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, two steps back.
When I think about hate crimes, and that sort of thing — I mean, these are a continuation of lynchings, essentially, they’ve never actually gone away. We just call them by different words. I think about that sign, “A man was lynched yesterday,” when you look at the actual statistics of, you know, how many civilians are killed by the police every year? Okay, so it’s not happening with a big crowd of people around, but we’ve actually given our police so much power over our world, over our society.
What I hope — what I think about when I think about intellectual freedom, is that you have to be able to imagine something different. So even when I say, “You know, in other countries, the police don’t carry guns,” people can’t even imagine. “What do they do? They don’t carry guns?” You’re like: “Well, you have to see, you have to think about how could the world be different.”
And to me that that’s what intellectual freedom is about — thinking about what could be different.
I even think about that with something like health car; it’s so embedded in our world, that your health care is tied to your job, which, if you think about it, makes no sense whatsoever, and no other country does this. Why do we take that as the way things should be? So you have to have people be able to talk about a different type of world.
I do worry about this, but I think that we should have been caught off guard by it. The election of Barack Obama, the browning of America, the shifts in technology, there’s no way that was going to just happen and everybody was going to be okay with it.
People keep asking me, “When do you think the book challenges are going to go away?”
And I’m like, “We haven’t even discussed how we’re going to talk about January 6, in our schools.”
Are we going to talk about our schools? Are there any books about it that our social-studies teachers [use for] explaining it to their fifth graders? At some point over the next 10 year, we’ll have to think about how we talk about that as history. And that has not happened at all. We can barely even talk about it as just a recent event.
And as you mentioned, events well back in the past remain unreconciled. You mentioned the Civil War and the failed experiment of Reconstruction, and the persistence of these retrograde ideas about human rights and human values and social justice that are actually revanchist — that want to reclaim old territory, and that are radicalized around attempts to broaden discourse around these unresolved issues. In fact, I think it was a year or two ago at Georgia Southern University, a woman doing a book tour with a book about structural racism had her books set on fire —
… which raises another subject — that of book burning versus book banning. They’re not the same. Maybe they’re on a continuum.
Yeah, so book burning is quite different — and I’ll bring in some of my religious studies background here — it is really a ritualistic cleansing of the community. Book banning is more about just removal, like, just getting something away, while burning something is about not just removing, but the fire as a cleansing element, that it’s just gone.
Also, too, you have to do all these things to burn books. We have to set up the pyre, you have to bring the books here. Often they’re done in very public ways. It’s really a liturgy of cleansing, which seems histrionic — but if you think about it, you can see that from the pictures. [Like the] Harry Potter books, I believe they were burned in Arizona, a pastor burned them there. And, you know, it was a whole thing where people brought them, you know, to be burned. I hope to write a paper about this — I’m actually going to link it to the burning of disco records in Chicago, which I just recently heard about. This is supposed to be in the ’70s or ’80s.
At a ball field, right, it was a stadium?
Yes, yes. So I really want to look at the ritualistic aspects of it. And what I do in my work is really to try to talk about how people think about it, or talk about it. I do discourse analysis. I want to hear what people say at these burnings of books, because it’s a little different from what they say at a book challenge or book banning. They don’t say, “you can get this anywhere,” it’s much more about: “This is evil. This is trash. This is something that needs to be removed entirely from our community, our society.”
I confess I find that disquieting. I think about book banning coming from a place of fear, and book burning as coming from a place of hate. And that in this regard, a book can be a surrogate for the human body. I find that incredibly chilling — it represents people in history and culture and ideas that you want to set on fire. And while it’s not necessarily widespread in America, it seems to represent a sentiment that at least some people have, that they would purge and “cleanse” their society of these people and ideas. And we know where that goes. The term cleansing when related to ethnicity brings to mind Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda. Of course, there’s the famous book burning in Germany in 1933, thousands of books. Is it a matter of scale in the United States? Is it really that there’s not enough of it right now to be truly worried?
I would say yes, it’s in some ways a matter of scale; I will not be surprised if these books end up being burned at some place at some point. Because I do think that these are ideas that people want to simply get rid of, not just argue against. I would especially expect books about gender identity to be burned. Because I think that goes to a very deep place for people.
And I don’t expect it to be widespread. I think, actually, a lot of people have an aversion to burning books, even people who banned books tend to love books. So burning books is another step that most people will not engage in. Other things need to be happening. It’s a bridge too far for a lot of people.
Then there’s a school board member in Virginia who just wanted to throw LGBTQ books into a fire. I saw at the Authors Guild website, there was a statistic cited, that something like more than 60 percent of the books challenged are in fact LGBTQ-oriented.
Yeah, so if you actually look at the latest American Library Association stats, you’ll see that almost all the books that have been challenged in the past five to 10 years are diverse books. So I have an article about that. To me, this is about the browning of America, this is about changes in understanding both sexual and gender identity.
I was just hearing someone talk about how quickly gay marriage came about — I think people who were against gay marriage did not expect that to happen. I think that if you are feeling that way, you would say, “Well, that just won’t happen. Right? It’s it’s too embedded in our society, heterosexual marriage.” But then it happens. And there hasn’t been any backlash, especially from the next generation coming up, right? In fact, they are even questioning the idea of gender at all.
It is a bridge too far, I think, for most people — that school board member in Virginia, perhaps, excluded, and maybe we want to watch out for more of that sort of blasé \ willingness to cross that bridge. Maybe that is a warning sign to keep an eye out for. He is, however, a minority, opinion-wise, it seems. I’m thinking also about the Tennessee School Board where they did ban Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” 10-0,, and on the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is one of those magical moments of timing. I don’t suppose the irony is deliberate, but it is amazing. And it was all very procedural on their part — it was really down to: “Should we censor parts of the book so we can keep it on our shelves? No, we’re gonna take it out because it violates our policies.” It came down to a matter of policy centered on local values, as you said. I believe Donald Trump won that district by 80 percent of the vote.
I have to wonder whether using their local values and following local “policies” to justify the removal of the book — and thereby confront our idealized regime of intellectual freedom in a First Amendment-oriented society — as being a little bit of a good German thing: “We’re just following the rules here, following orders.”
Do you see that as an erosion of civil society and an erosion of norms around intellectual freedom?
I see those people as not actually understanding anything about that book. Part of the problem with “Maus” is that it’s a graphic novel. I doubt they would have even noticed it, if it had been just a regular novel. So they did not remove “Night” by Elie Weisel. Graphic novels (even though [“Maus” is] actually a graphic nonfiction book) have their own problems across all sorts of issues.
I think people always use the tools that are available to them to impose their values on people. So they were very focused on the bad words, and one picture of someone who has died by suicide. Because I was very confused when they were talking about nudity. I’m like, do they mean nude mice? Like, I just didn’t know what they were talking about. But apparently, it’s a picture of Art Speigelman’s mother, and how she died. And that’s just missing the point. There’s nothing you can really do with that, because they’re focused on things that don’t even matter when you’re thinking about that book.
And also, what I get from that, is that we need to do a better job of actually talking about the Holocaust. And what happened, you know, I cannot imagine being a Jewish person in that town right now. I don’t even know if there are any Jewish people in that town. Right? Like, there probably are not very many. But that must be extremely frightening … because in some ways, those people are saying, well, we can only talk about your history the right way, without bad words. Without nudity. It just doesn’t even make any sense. It’s sanitizing history, you know, one of the most horrible things that we have done, I mean, as humans, other humans. And just saying, “Well, it can’t have bad words in it” — it’s a way of not really grappling with what actually happened.
That’s actually what all these things are, the ideas like, “Slavery was a benevolent institution, so we shouldn’t show people being harmed by it.” All of these things are really ways of not taking how horrible humans can be to other humans into account.
There is so much denial around these issues — from sort of benign denial, “It’s icky and scary, and they said bad words and there are naked bodies, and we don’t want to think about it. And besides, it was so long ago, and it happened to them, not us. So is there a way we can approach this in a paragraph in a textbook and move on?” And then there’s the other extreme — the folks who say, “It never happened, this is all false history,” or, “It was justified.”
Is there a continuum between denial versus actual revisionism?
Yes, I think there is, but they’re not usually the same people. The people who are in denial are different than the people who just have lost the plot.
But you actually bring me back to the idea of reading, because the reason why “Maus” is so powerful, is that Spiegelman just takes you into the story. It’s a whole journey. It’s so much more powerful than just [learning] about what happened, because you go on this journey with the author. And to me, that is why reading matters. You know, I talked about Rudine Sims Bishop and her theory on mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. And especially for memoirs that bring history to life, [they] help you see what was it like to be this person? What is it like to be someone other than myself?
And that book [“Maus’] is so powerful, because it really does that. Another graphic novel that does this is “Persepolis,” which is gore free. But it’s very uncomfortable to read. I don’t know anything about the Iranian revolution. But that book really showed me what it was like to be on the ground there. What did it mean to be an actual Iranian during that time? And that’s what books do.
And when nonfiction like history is really real well written, it does that for you also. I still haven’t read “Alexander Hamilton.” But, you know, apparently, Lin Manuel Miranda read it, and he’s like, “I am going to write a musical on this very long biography of this guy who’s on our money.” He really thought about it, wrote poems and raps about it, thought about what should it look like on on the stage — that’s really amazing, that a book like that could lead to this entirely different way of even thinking about our history.
Even the arguments that we have, about how Hamilton and the other founding fathers who enslaved people. A lot of that is because someone watched “Hamilton,” they’re like, “Well, this isn’t actually all that accurate.” To me, that’s what knowledge can do.
So with those people in Tennessee, well, first of all, they have totally embarrassed themselves, that’s just like the people just banned “The Bluest Eye.” Because you get very wrapped up in the people who are around you; everyone there agreed with them. It didn’t occur to them probably that Art Spiegelman himself would actually say something about this. And that there will be a Streisand effect for that particular book, people will buy it, be like, “This sounds like it’s pretty good.”
That doesn’t always happen. And it doesn’t matter for those kids in Tennessee.
So this environment of intellectual freedom and informed choice around books, around reading, around interpreting — it’s an ideal and really at the center of our civil society, and our democracy. It’s full of struggle. It’s not a settled thing. It’s an ongoing give and take. It’s a good struggle.
I’m on the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship. We don’t always agree on that board. And I really like it — because it feels like we are discussing fundamental issues: What does it mean to support freedom of expression? How do we react to people who are harmed due to freedom of expression? What do we owe those people? How do we make sure that marginalized voices are heard? And in different places?
To me, that’s really fundamental.
Actually, I’m writing my next book right now. And the first chapter is: “Intellectual Freedom, a Core and Contested Value,” because that’s really what it is. And I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, we will always have these discussions about what people should know.
It puts a lot of faith in people to arrive at a place of at least being able to work together and live together.
Yeah, I think that’s the hardest part — that you have to trust your fellow human beings. But to me, I think about: That’s why we need to invest in public institutions, right? If we want people to be exposed to all these things, we need to pay our teachers more, we need to make sure that they’re well trained, we need to have Headstart programs across the country.
You can’t have literacy on the cheap. You can’t have a well informed society on the cheap.
How can folks get involved with championing these values?
I think the best thing that we can get out of this is that hopefully the liberal and progressive left will run for school board, run for your public library board.
Vote, go to the meetings, have your kids go to the meetings, if your kid disagrees with this, have your kid write up something to read out. I mean, one of the greatest things about the work I do is when it’s during the public comment section. Well, first of all, there’s always some crank who has their own little pet issue that they come to every meeting to discuss. But you really see your community in action. And we cannot cede that to people who are really riled up all the time.
You have to be involved. It’s part of being, to me, a good citizen. So pick one thing, pick something: If you don’t have time to do that, well, buy the books for your library and put them out somewhere, and if kids really needs this book — get it for them.
There’s been so much against diverse populations — are you supporting your local, youth LGBTQ community center? We have a group that supports young black men in our community. And I actually don’t have time to volunteer there, but I give as much money as I can. Because I believe in the work that they’re doing.
You had mentioned, you’re on the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship. Is there a website folks can check out?
And folks can go to those websites and learn about how they can get involved in those causes.
Emily Knox, thanks so much for joining us.