As a lifetime book lover, it truly makes me sick. In the name of protecting children from toxins, at the behest of Congress and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, bookstores, secondhand shops and libraries are currently in the process of destroying -- DESTROYING! -- hundreds of thousands of classic children's books.
Here are just a tiny handful of the books currently being thrown into landfills and burned. Every book written before 1985 is on the chopping block. Libraries cannot possibly comply without shutting down their entire children's sections.
I am currently in the process of reading a series of children's books published in 1938, which includes classic children's stories dating back into the early 1900s and late 1800s as well as ancient myths, fables, poems and stories spanning the entire stretch of recorded human history. I can tell you that this has been one of the most fascinating, pleasurable educational experiences I have had in years.
I've stumbled across a first-person account of what it was like to grow up as an Indian boy in America long before Native Americans were forced into reservations. Did you know that the smallest children were tied to sleds pulled by dogs when the tribe had to travel, and that when the thirsty dogs smelled water they would sometimes begin running, ignoring the cries of the mothers, and jump in the water, babies and all? Or that when a new baby was born, the older brothers and sisters would jump (or be thrown) into the nearest available snow or water to mark the occasion?
I've also read a touching true story of a chimpanzee whom a wildlife photographer adopted from the wild, and who followed the author back to civilization. The chimp's adventures included learning how to bathe himself and brush his teeth, making mud patties and dams with children, riding on the back of a hyena, and sailing on an ocean liner in the author's cabin. In one vignette, the chimp is bitten by a small snake and comes to the author with his teeth chattering to show him the bite, and then lies down on the ground and refuses to go further, apparently convinced that he is going to die. The author surmises that this must have been something the chimp learned in his earlier life in the trees of Africa, where all chimps are deadly afraid of snakes and for good reason.
I've learned about a wild crow who became a family pet and hid shiny objects under a floorboard in the porch, dive-bombed the family's blind dog for their mutual enjoyment, and always followed members of the family down the road when they went for walks.
I've read another true story by John Muir, telling of an outing to explore an Alaska glacier, during which he almost lost his life trying to get back to camp before dark. During a day's solo exploration, accompanied only by a small dog who had insisted on tagging along, Muir became trapped in an "island" between two crevasses and could not possibly go back the way he came, because it would involve leaping too far across a deadly chasm to a higher slope above. He was forced to find another way out of his trap, which consisted of crossing a 70-foot ice sliver over a deadly crevasse on the glacier. As Muir carefully worked his way across the ice sliver, he knew he could lose his life at any time with just one slip. When he mercifully arrived safely at the other side, he then had to somehow convince the terrified dog "Stickeen," still standing on the glacial "island" between deadly crevasses, that he would have to cross the same tiny ice bridge or be left to die. The horrified dog knew very well that one slip would mean certain death and refused until it was clear he would be left behind. He had to pick his way very carefully across the steps in the narrow ice bridge Muir had carved with his ice axe, holding himself against the gusty wind. The dog managed to cross the bridge and then, faced with a dangerous climb up the opposite slope, somehow made a final leap and scramble to safety. Muir describes the dog's bounds and cries and sobs and trembles of delight when it was finally safe on the other side -- an amazing story of a dog's autonomy and deep emotion and triumph like I have never read anywhere before or since.
I've had glimpes into Arabian history. Do you know that Muslims have claimed that they love death more than we love life for many centuries? This Islamic death wish is not new to our century; it is very, very old. Might this long history have some bearing on how we need to approach the issue of violence in the name of Allah today? If we ignore this history, might the ways in which we view these issues be short-sighted and likely doomed to failure?
The stories in these old children's books are not all whitewashed and sanitized. Quite the contrary. They involve danger, risk, death, and torture. The three little pigs do not all survive. The wolf does not fare well, either. One can find numerous old fairy tales and myths that take equally gruesome turns -- along with many delightful turns. One can also find the story of Joan of Arc.
Along the way, by reading old children's literature, I have been learning human history in a way that it cannot possibly be learned from narrative tomes.
Many of these stories may never be republished because they are not "politically correct" or simply include too much violence. And yet if these stories are lost, we can never truly understand our history.
All of this rich history and more stands to be wiped out in my lifetime, and indeed in this year of 2009. I would not have believed it possible. I knew that our society was creeping year by year, decade by decade, toward greater and greater loss of our freedoms. I have spoken out against it and it feels as if my appeals, and those of others, have been ignored. But now the destruction is in progress. History is being lost. Treasures are about to be lost forever in the raging fire.
All for what? For some dubious, debatable benefit that is more than offset by the loss of this treasure to humanity.
Those in Congress and in the federal government who enacted these laws and regulations have no idea of what they are destroying or -- worse -- are willing to allow the destruction because it leaves room for them to rewrite history to suit their own prejudices and preferences. But if we are afraid to know our history, we are cheating ourselves. By understanding our history, we can more fully appreciate the fragility of what we have today.
At a minimum, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act should be amended this year to exempt children's books already in existence. Libraries are already asking for an exemption, but the exemption should not be limited to libraries. Classic children's books are already in the process of being removed from bookshelves and destroyed.