When the American experiment began, no one expected it to one day be summarized brilliantly by a stone arch in the middle of an expanse of mountains, hot springs, and fountains erupting on nature’s atomic stopwatch.
“For the benefit and enjoyment of all the people”
This is the inscription on the Roosevelt Arch, which serves as the gateway to Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance. Many who cross under its protective ideology claim that it is the central ideal of the National Park System, or what some people call “America’s best idea.”
The National Park System was an unprecedented action of democracy, built to share and retain beauty that anyone is welcome to. More than a hundred years later, the parks stand out as a small part of our democracy that actually takes the values of liberty and equality seriously, but it wasn’t the earliest example of this kind of democratic innovation.
In 1731, Benjamin Franklin founded The Library Company, which is billed as the first public library in the world. At the time, book shops were scarce, and if they weren’t scarce, books were expensive, so Franklin pitched the idea of gathering the books his “society of mutual improvement,” Junto, a debate club of sorts, read and discussed on a recurring basis, placing them in the room in which they met for consistent access. The experiment worked so well that he expanded access, gathering subscriptions and donations from the people of Philadelphia.
The idea of access to books caught the affection of the public, and two other libraries followed, The Darby Free Library in 1743, another subscription-supported library, and the Peterborough Town Library, the world’s first tax-supported free public library in 1833.
Though each of these libraries has their own unique “first,” each one sprung out of the same force that pushed the national parks forward: “for the benefit and enjoyment of all the people.”
When one experiences the freedom our country’s national parks offer, the feeling one gets isn’t an overwhelming sense of exercising civic democracy. When you stand at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon or stare onto the glassy water of Crater Lake, you aren’t considering the political freedoms that underpin your access to such places of beauty, but the beauty itself.
The same rings true for standing among the stacks. The landscapes may be different—waterfalls replaced with poetry; canyons, gorges, and mountains replaced with concepts, commas, and ideas—but whether we walk among sequoias of California or the shelves of young adult literature, we are taking part in the promises of personal freedom our nation offers. You can stare into both the horizon of the Badlands and the pages of Toni Morrison and experience the innovation of democracy, of a free people.
Every September, America’s libraries and leading literary institutions celebrate Banned Books Week, a time set aside to point the public eye toward books that have been challenged and banned from collections, brought to courts, and, in some cases, burned. There is not a Banned Parks Week, so it is here that our comparison dies, and if you’re anything like me, you’re left wondering why. How is it that books are banned, but parks are not?
The difference between libraries and national parks is that, though they both contain beauty, and both stand for access, only one—books—contains consumable ideas. Books are as wild as the beasts that hide in the park forests. Perhaps maybe even more so because ideas aren’t contained in a physical form. Regardless of form, humans fear wild things. We fear the unknown. Staring into the face of a bear might give you the same reaction as being faced with a book that makes you uncomfortable. Granted, one of these scenarios is more likely to end with death than the other. The point is, fear will trigger a reaction in every human.
Though I’m sure somewhere there’s the story of the man or woman who, when they encountered a bear, fought it off with their bare hands, the bulk of humans won’t do that. Most of us might try to remove ourselves from the situation by forgoing the expert’s advice to not run. And here is where we find another difference.
In the woods, we remove ourselves because, if we stay, we will be at the mercy of nature. In the stacks, we act, and I fear, believe, as if this isn’t true.
“Banned” is rarely the word we hear in our heads when we react to the books we find pushing against our sensibilities. Instead, we may say “inappropriate” or “harmful” or “too filled with cursing”—the list goes on. We can say a myriad of things that will lead us to believe that we’ve got the better idea. To us, this doesn’t look like censorship, it looks like truth. So, we challenge a book, firmly believing that we are doing right by the world. Yet we don’t exercise the same boldness when it comes to the wilderness.
We can decide to avoid a trail that we believe we aren’t up to tackling, but we do not deem those same trails inappropriate for others. If we do take those trails and they challenge us, we simply tell others that the trails are difficult. We don’t force others into not venturing into the wild based on our individual fitness and capacity. We decide for ourselves alone. And if we do go, we heed the signs that there may be bears ahead, and a hiker assumes the risks when they venture into the wild.
Books are no different, and it is a mistake to treat them as anything but wild. We must enter the library with the same caution we use when walking the mountains, forests, and rivers of our world. Preparations must be taken. Maps must be consulted. Books are banned and challenged because we continually make the mistake, whether out of fear or self-justification, of assuming books are static objects that we can impose ourselves upon. It is much more obvious when staring down the vastness of a mountain range that we can be swallowed whole by it. It is not as obvious when we crack open the pages of a book, and we must realize that it is the same exercise in order for a freedom we can all agree upon can truly ring.
“For the benefit and enjoyment of all the people”
When the American experiment began, no one expected it to one day be summarized brilliantly by a stone arch, just as no one expected libraries to stand in the gaps of equality and meet the fingers of humanity grasping for knowledge. Freedom is at stake when we remove and ban books from the hands of those willing to hike their trails, scale their cliffs, and get lost in their back country.
When we ban a book, regardless of our intentions, we keep people from a wilderness that is not ours to guard.
Dave Connis is the non-award winning author of Suggested Reading, a young adult book about banned books, censorship, and the impact of books on us and the world.
You can read more about it here