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Professor of banned books warns: It’s ‘dangerous’ not to read

Literary fiction offers an essential source of empathy, Franklin Pierce University professor Donna M. Decker notes as Banned Book Week begins

English professor Donna Decker listens as a student gives a presentation on a banned book at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., on Sept. 29.Ken McGagh for The Boston Globe

On the first day of her “banned books” course at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., professor Donna M. Decker apologized to her students.

Shetold them she wished the required reading list she hand-selected for their 15-week class could be much longer. The five full novels and assortment of excerpts give an overview of the literature types challenged most often for their controversial content. But there are so many important books being banned, she knew her syllabus could include many more.

Decker developed the course roughly 15 years ago and said she loves teaching it, especially now.

“We’ve got this tremendous surge in book challenges and book banning, so it’s a super important semester for me — and for the country, really,” she said.

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The surge goes beyond efforts to sanitize the shelves inside K-12 schools. Organized groups are putting increased pressure on public libraries as well, according to the American Library Association, which has been tracking book challenges for more than two decades.

The ALA reported a record number of book challenges in 2022 and said challenges were up another 20 percent during the first eight months of 2023. In New Hampshire, the ALA tracked 12 attempts to restrict books last year and 10 attempts during the first eight months of this year.

Jacie Richard, a junior at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., held a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” during a presentation Sept. 29 in an English class about banned books.Ken McGagh for The Boston Globe

Nationwide, the ALA said most challenges are coming in batches from people pushing to censor multiple titles at once, and most of the books at issue are written either by or about a person of color or member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Decker said Americans are wading into treacherous waters. Hushing storytellers can create an overly simplistic social narrative that promotes stereotypes rather than understanding, she said, citing what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “The danger of a single story.”

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“I think that’s exactly where we are in this country right now,” Decker said.

Literary greats Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood have written novels about the generational trauma of slavery and the oppressive potential of patriarchy that have ranked among the nation’s most challenged books. “And that’s really frightening,” Decker said.

Reading literary fiction is a great way to develop empathy as a skill, she added.

“Being able to imagine ourselves in the minds and hearts and shoes, if you will, of other people, that’s key,” she said. “That’s what I emphasize: How can we understand someone else, even if we really disagree with those other people?”

Decker said her class applies that same empathetic lens to groups that have pushed to curtail children’s access to certain books. Her students spent time last month researching and discussing what Moms for Liberty members want, fear, and believe, she said.

A student gives a presentation Sept. 29 on Lynda Madras’ young adult book. “What’s Happening to My Body?,” which was banned in Texas, during an English class on banned books at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. Ken McGagh for The Boston Globe

Decker, who is herself a mother and grandmother, said reading banned and challenged books is an indispensable exercise.

“It’s dangerous to have one story. It’s dangerous to not read,” she said. “We have to read and understand other people’s lives because not everybody is like us.”

This week marks ALA’s annual Banned Books Week, with programming that includes a conversation Wednesday evening on Instagram Live with LeVar Burton, star of the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries “Roots” and host of the popular PBS series, “Reading Rainbow.”


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Steven Porter can be reached at steven.porter@globe.com. Follow him @reporterporter.