Great America

Get Your Woke Hands Off My Bookshelf

Calls to decolonize one’s bookshelf are nothing but a polite (and sometimes not so polite) alternative to book-burning.

As summer begins, it grows increasingly difficult to account for all of the fronts on which the Left’s intifada against American history and culture is unfolding.

Between the purging of the newsroom infidels, the iconoclasm displayed in the attacks upon historical monuments dedicated to even the most exemplary of Americans, the radicalization of public school curricula, the destruction of private property, and the forceful annexation and occupation of public property, it is hard to grasp the full scope of the rebellion we are witnessing. But an important development that cannot be ignored is the recent imperative for Americans to “decolonize [our] bookshelves.”

Perhaps the most prominent diktat to this effect came from NPR in Juan Vidal’s column entitled “Your Bookshelf May Be Part of the Problem.” He boils down “the Problem” as such: 

In essence, it is about actively resisting and casting aside the colonialist ideas of narrative, storytelling, and literature that have pervaded the American psyche for so long. If you are white, take a moment to examine your bookshelf. What do you see? What books and authors have you allowed to influence your worldview, and how you process the issues of racism and prejudice toward the disenfranchised? Have you considered that, if you identify as white and read only the work of white authors, you are in some ways listening to an extension of your own voice on repeat?

Vidal is by no means the only one calling for the revision of my reading habits. A quick Google search shows that the “decolonize your bookshelf” push has many acolytes.

In this moment we are all called upon to not “be part of the problem”—especially “if you are white.” I am. So I dutifully took account of my bookshelves. I’m an English professor and I have a lot of books—If I had to guess, I probably have between 3,000 and 4,000 of them. I have boxes of books in the attic. I have three large shelves full of books in my office at the university. But the books I love the most (which are the books I find most useful) are the ones lining the multiple shelves in the downstairs of my house. There is an enormous diversity of authors represented among these stacks, but in the interest of taking an honest account of which writers have been most influential for me, I began making a list of any author with three or more books on these shelves.

Here it is:

Various editions of the Bible Augustine of Hippo

Paul Tillich

Kurt Vonnegut

Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa)

Tom Wolfe

Ayn Rand

Friedrich Nietzsche

Jean Paul Sartre

Sigmund Freud

Bret Lott

C.G. Jung

Hunter S. Thompson

Kenneth Burke

Karl Marx

Charles Taylor

Toni Morrison

Allen Ginsberg

Plato

Richard Wright

Thomas Sowell

Camille Paglia

Aristotle

Cicero

Quintilian

Michel Foucault

Dante

Marshall McLuhan

Gilles Deleuze

Jacques Derrida

T.S. Eliot

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Ernest Hemingway

This list, I noticed, is incredibly diverse. It has people from Algeria, Rome, England, Russia, America, France, Greece, Germany, Spain, and more. It has Canadians. For God’s sake, it even has Canadiens. It has women. It has men. It has gay people. It has trans-people. It has straight people. It has Jews; it has Christians; it has atheists; it has agnostics. It has conservatives. It has Marxists (and Marx). It has progressives. It has fascists. It has Democrats. It has Freak Power. It has nihilists. It has idealists. It has objectivists. It has white people. It has African-Americans. It has Native Americans. It has people who wrote to us from the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. It has thinkers from the first century, the second, the fourth, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, and even our own foul century.

Surveying the list, I breathed a sigh of relief: I’m not part of the problem. Or am I? Of the 33 writers and thinkers above, as many as 26 of them might be classified as “old, white, men” by the grossly reductionist standards of our time. Further, the list is overwhelmingly heteronormative. And where are the Asians? The asexuals? The Latinx writers? The Muslim Latinx writers? It slowly dawned on me: I’m part of the problem.

If I’m being honest, I only have a vague sense of what that problem is, and I don’t fully grasp exactly what role I’ve been playing in perpetuating it. But given the apparently vast diversity of my list, I wondered: what would a truly “decolonized” list look like? I guess NPR is looking for a different kind of diversity than the kind represented by my list. How to proceed?

As a child, I remember black leaders like Jesse Jackson advocating for more representation of minority characters in television programming. There were reasonable calls for the networks to create more shows that “looked like America.” By “looking like America,” I supposed that people meant that the representation of minority groups on television should reflect their proportional representation in the population at large. This made a lot of sense to me, and I was happy to see this begin to change. But by the 21st century, most programming had stopped “looking like America” actually looks, and had begun representing what the media felt America should look like. Now, the make-up of primetime casts is totally predictable: there is the white character, the black character, the Asian character, the lesbian character, the Hispanic character, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that—except that it really doesn’t look like most of America. All groups do not exist in exact proportion to all others, and how America “looks” differs from place to place—it’s one thing in Manhattan, another in Detroit, another in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Vermont.

I suspect that “decolonizing” my shelves would look something like the change that happened on television. It doesn’t matter that Ginsberg was a gay Jewish guy with Buddhist beliefs. At the end of the day, he represents the white, male perspective, and the 15 or so books that I own from him are only helping create a self-confirming feedback loop of my own white ideology.

Even though he lived in Athens in a far different time from our own, Plato clearly would have to go. His ideas about the soul and the essence of things must be toxic. Not to mention slavery. During a meeting to select a book for the common reading experience among freshmen at my university, I was “part of the problem” when I suggested The Republic. The administrator leading the meeting thankfully dismissed it out of hand. When another faculty member expressed some support for the idea, the administrator paused. “Well…I guess we could teach against it…but I’d like to hear some other suggestions.” My university has a very diverse student body. Plato’s perspective has many differences from the common one in our time and place, but that’s the wrong kind of diversity.

Writers like Foucault, Deleuze, and Nietzsche would probably get nixed. Never mind that all of them advance ideas that are critical of the West and its intellectual traditions. They are also white men drowning out the diversity of voices. The presence of Eliot and Pound on the list are prima facie evidence that I am “part of the problem.” Cancel them. Sadly, Thomas Sowell also needs to go. While he is a black, conservative intellectual, his ideas suggest that he might speak from a “white perspective.” Insufficiently diverse. As a devout leftist, Paglia might be a nice edition…except she claims to be trans, and she clearly is not. That kind of appropriation will not be tolerated.

Marx can probably stay though.

At bottom, the “decolonize” imperative lays bare a tragic assumption on the contemporary Left: that any writer’s ideas are wholly determined by identity and personal experience. If you’re white, you are advancing “white” ideas. If you’re a Christian, the function of your writing can only be a kind of evangelism. If you’re heterosexual, your ignorance of “the gay experience” ensures that your writing is a vehicle for the perpetuation of heteronormativity. The problems here are glaring: the texts themselves (their content, their aesthetics, their stylistics) simply don’t matter. It doesn’t matter what these books say—it only matters what they do. And oddly, what they do is thought to be wholly unrelated to what they say. What these texts do is entirely determined by who is writing. That is why Zora Neale Hurston should replace Foucault on my bookshelf. Of course, if the decolonizers had read Foucault, they might remember his cautionary question (and Beckett’s before him): “What matter who’s speaking?”

Ultimately, to decolonize my bookshelf would be to commit some violence against history. Historically speaking, not all societies produced an equal number of books. Decolonizing would call for a ridiculous presentism in our reading. “Diversity” is also stymied by the fact that many nations transmitted knowledge through an oral tradition. Further, the seminal texts of many societies remain untranslated into English. I suppose I could put those books on my bookshelf for show, but I wouldn’t be able to read them.

Of course, actually reading the books on my decolonized bookshelf is fairly unimportant. The left doesn’t really mind if I don’t read the right books. But they will ensure that I cannot read the wrong ones. And given that so much of world history deviates from the woke ideal, most books—especially those from the West, especially those advocating the traditions of the West—will need to be cancelled. 

The effort to decolonize our bookshelves is one more instance where the totalitarian impulse of the progressive Left is laid bare. The destruction and defacement of statues is an attempt to police public memory and the experience of public space. But my books, my reading, is a private affair. No one needs to be triggered by the bookshelves in my home. If anyone is, he can leave. Calls to decolonize one’s bookshelf are nothing but a polite (and sometimes not so polite) alternative to book-burning. By restricting what I read, these Jacobins seek to control what I think: they seek to colonize my mind with their values, their prejudices, their ethics. They seek to erase history to control the future. Don’t let them.