Like a Rolling Tome

A Florida bookseller hopes an old-fashioned bookmobile will help combat the growing tide of school censorship

As censorship from both the left and right continues to test the resilience of literary culture, one of the more creative responses is about to roll out, quite literally, in the Florida of Governor Ron DeSantis.

Nikki Snyder, the owner of a bookstore and café in Sarasota called Shelf Indulgence, is running a Kickstarter campaign to pay for the remaking and operation of a former school bus that has had its rows of seats ripped out and replaced with shelves and a lounge as well as a rooftop reading area. Snyder saw the vehicle with her own eyes during a trip to Cincinnati early in the year, and grew convinced that the converted bus has a role to play in the promotion and delivery of books during uncertain times for those of us for whom reading is like breathing.

The bus arrived in Florida on March 20. It will spend a few weeks in a body shop for cleaning and painting, Snyder told Book and Film Globe. Snyder and friends supporting the project do not wish the new bookmobile to look like just another plain old school bus, she said. Snyder has finished the interior conversation, but she wants to paint the vehicle’s exterior purple, a job that will cost a cool $14,500. Hence the crowdfunding effort, which is only a couple grand short of its goal as this article goes to press.

“It is very hard to ignore a giant purple bus,” Snyder said. When it hits the road, the bus will bring a curated selection of used books, many of them YA titles, to readers all over. The idea is already such a hit that a very young reader asked if the bus could make a stop at her next birthday party, Snyder said.

Nikki Snyder’s bookmobile bus, awaiting its purple paint job (photos courtesy of Nikki Snyder).
Thwarting Censorship

Bookmobiles were in wide use as far back as the Nineteenth Century. While the concept is not new, some believe the need for them is acute in 2023.

Snyder described her idea as having evolved over time. What she originally conceived as a vehicle offering book fairs for nostalgic grown-ups, bringing back some of the magic that she and others experienced at Scholastic book fairs in their childhood, has evolved to include an anti-censorship message and function, she said.

Recent legislation in Florida, notably the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” and the “K-12 Education Measure,” has become the focus of a national controversy for allegedly placing restrictions on what materials may be in curricula and what titles libraries may offer to students. DeSantis contends that his measures are not censorship but grow out of a reasonable concern for age-appropriateness, and that they have kept pornography and ideologically driven content out of the hands of children.

In a recent press conference, DeSantis denied that such culling amounts to a book ban and called such characterizations “really a nasty hoax.” His office has promoted a video that takes the viewer on a tour of some of the more explicit, and admittedly distasteful, content in a few of the removed titles, including images and text graphically depicting and encouraging masturbation and trans surgery, among other things.

To many, it does seem fair to ask whether schools should expose small children to primers on erections and anal sex. But PEN America and other organizations concerned with the rights of authors and with issues of intellectual freedom have gone to considerable lengths to try to rebut the governor’s defense. PEN contends that this is censorship, full stop, arguing that titles such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Judy Blume’s Forever, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and other non-pornographic works that some on the right don’t like have fallen victim to DeSantis’s laws.

Snyder agrees with PEN America’s position on the controversy. Her own experience has helped her see the impact of the governor’s policies on virtually all parties concerned, from schoolkids to teachers to parents.

The book bus’s interior.

“I have a teenage son in public school and over the last few months, we have seen some scary legislation and practices regarding book banning,” Snyder said. “Parents have to sign waivers stating their children can check out books from the library without parental permission, class reading lists have to be approved by parents, and teachers have to cover up their classroom libraries. Teachers can also face felony charges for giving students reading materials that haven’t been approved by ‘media specialists.’”

Snyder does not credit such self-appointed avatars of legitimacy and propriety. “We firmly believe that everyone should have access to all literature, not just what a select few deem appropriate,” she said.

Wherever you may stand on the removal of the titles from Florida schools—and there are intelligent voices on both sides of the issue—Snyder is undoubtedly right about one thing. Once people appoint themselves the judges of what is suitable for others to read and begin to enforce content-based restrictions or revisions, as we have seen recently in the furor over Inclusion Ambassadors’ reworking of Roald Dahl and a similar controversy involving Ian Fleming, a self-justifying Orwellian precept is at work and its long-term ramifications may be hard to guess.

Not accidentally, one of the most influential manifestoes of personal and spiritual freedom in all literature is the novel On the Road. If more people adopt mobile book delivery systems, then works of literature everywhere that are subject to repression can literally hit the road and become the agents of a decentralized, locally directed independent literary culture helping to ensure creative and intellectual freedom in the face of threats from the right and left.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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