Remembering Pat Conroy - Fierce Defender of the Freedom to Read
By Judith Platt
Bestselling author Pat Conroy died on March 4, 2016. For millions of his readers he will be remembered for his lush prose, his palpable love of the Carolina Low Country and his ability to transform a brutal childhood into captivating works of fiction. For those of us engaged in the fight for intellectual freedom, he will also be remembered for his fierce defense of the freedom to read and his total disdain for would-be book banners and censors.
More than 20 years ago, Pat Conroy spoke at the 25th Annual Meeting of the Association of American Publishers. With humor and passion Conroy told the assembled publishers just how important their work was. Books and the dedicated English teachers who had guided his reading had literally saved his life, Conroy said.
In 2007 AAP and our allies were involved in a censorship fight in Kanawha County, West Virginia over attempts to remove two of Conroy’s novels, Beach Music and Prince of Tides, from the high school Honors English reading list. Two outraged students contacted Conroy himself about the attempts to ban his books. The result was a letter from Conroy to the Charleston Gazette that was, I believe, one of the best defenses of the freedom to read ever written. In it he said: “Book banners are invariably idiots.” Here’s an excerpt and a link to the whole letter:
The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses....I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career....The school board of Charleston, West Virginia has sullied that gift....You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing. Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots; they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.