State representative Jared Patterson has never claimed, through campaign literature or any other medium, to be a reader. If he had, he might not have walked into the trap set for him last night during a House Public Education Committee hearing on his inaptly named READER Act. That proposal would add several new bureaucratic controls on the kinds of books that could be kept in or borrowed from public-school libraries. When Democratic state representative James Talarico, of Round Rock, prodded the Frisco Republican during debate, Patterson took the bait. “There should be no sexually explicit books” in a high school library, he said.
Talarico replied that there’s content that could be viewed as sexually explicit in many very good books. (Though he didn’t mention it, the Bible ranks high among them.) Take Talarico’s favorite book, Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel Lonesome Dove, about two retired Texas Rangers on a cattle drive during the twilight years of the Old West, which has become totemic to generations of Texans. The book includes characters who are prostitutes and scenes of sexual assault and its consequences. It includes birds and bees and all that kind of filth. Talarico asked: Would Lonesome Dove be banned in Texas high schools under Patterson’s bill?
Patterson hadn’t read Lonesome Dove, he replied, committing his first error. But if it contained the ribald passages Talarico indicated it did, well, then, “they might need to ban Lonesome Dove.” There were a lot of interested parties following this hearing, and it was widely understood among Patterson’s allies and enemies alike that he had stepped in it. Lonesome Dove is an easily comprehensible example of the kind of book that deals with difficult subjects but enhances the reader’s understanding of life, and of other Texans. The thought of the novel coming out of high school libraries in a brown paper bag, like a copy of Maxim, made Patterson’s whole bill seem more ridiculous than it already was.
Patterson’s allies apparently thought he needed help digging himself out of his hole, so they jumped in with him. Christin Bentley, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, had an idea. Apparently not having read the book either, she tweeted that she had “bought Lonesome Dove on Kindle and did keyword searches.” She searched for “f—,” “p—y,” “sex,” and “vagina,” which don’t appear in the novel, and posted screenshots to prove it. After this deep engagement with the text, she was happy to report on Twitter that the book was not sexually explicit and, therefore, would not be banned under the bill.
Of course, Lonesome Dove is set in the 1870s: Bentley was searching for the wrong words. Twitter users helpfully suggested she search for the word “poke.” (Hard to picture Gus yelling “p—y” across the range.) But even a better search would have been of limited value. With a short summary, you can make Lonesome Dove sound like smut or a wholesome novel. The only way to evaluate it properly, as with any book, is to read it and think about it in its totality. That’s the point of books: You can step into the lives of characters unlike you. You can think about what it’s like to be a woman or a man, consider issues you had never given thought to, and step back into your life at the end of it, your horizons a little wider.
Some folks, however, prefer their horizons narrow and dark. For several years, the crusade against books in school libraries has had the most power when targeting literature that discusses LGBTQ issues and racism. Few animated by this debate actually seem to care whether kids are reading about heterosexual sex. Indeed, Patterson has put rhetorical emphasis in his pitch for his bill on books that have “sexual indoctrination,” a euphemism for ones about gender-nonconforming or gay kids. The fear he and allies are stoking seems to be that by reading these books, formerly immaculate daughters and sons will become transgender. His bill’s case depends on circling off “scary” books from “normal” ones. This works well enough for him because few adults have encountered, say, Gender Queer, a graphic novel he’s also put in his cross hairs. But enough Texans have read Lonesome Dove to know that while the book is challenging, it is enriching, and being able to make sense of its challenges is part of growing up, especially in this state.
Patterson’s snafu makes clear that the bill’s sponsors don’t really care about books—or that they don’t understand them. Which is fine. That’s why we have Netflix. But maybe they should leave the regulation of literature to Texans who read.
The error also underscores another ridiculous part of the debate about school libraries. Children aren’t at risk of learning about sex from Lonesome Dove. There’s an elephant in the room, the discussion of which is bizarrely absent in committee hearings or anywhere else this discussion is happening. If you have an older child, know that any uncomfortable subject they are encountering in the high school library—if you are lucky enough that they are visiting the library at all—they are encountering or could encounter in a place called the internet. A half century ago, maybe you could prune your child’s information diet by strictly observing his or her library record. But that bird has flown the poking coop.
Parents inherit timeless anxieties: the fear of losing control; the slowly growing awareness that their kids are different people, not copies of themselves; the knowledge that the values of youth are different from theirs—often radically so. Compound all that with the new fact that every child with a smartphone has access to the whole sum of human knowledge and a record of every method by which a human being has obtained sexual relief in recorded history, and I don’t envy you, parents! It seems hard out there. But the idea that you can control that process via state supervision of your underpaid school librarian and their offerings is a fantasy that should be kept private, between consenting parties. If it makes you feel better to return the copy of The Last Picture Show your kid brought home from high school, along with an angry note, God bless. But in the meantime, that kid’s going upstairs and getting on Tumblr.