State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, reads proposed legislation while on the House floor on July 29, 2021. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

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Book bans don’t really work, except in politics.

They attract attention to the books in question. One good way to get a kid to pick up a book is to say there’s something illicit about it. And it’s a more powerful boost to sales than book blurbs or reviews can ever hope to be.

But as a political wedge, a ban on books — or the insinuation of one, such as an “inquiry” into what books are available to public school students in Texas — can be powerful. It’s not just a shot at the books, but at the people who work in close proximity to books and ideas, like teachers and librarians and other brainy, nerdy types. A nice, fresh controversy about which books they’re feeding into children’s undiscerning little minds amplifies current culture debates about critical race theory and transgender student athletes, masks and vaccines.

Matt Krause, a state representative from Fort Worth, is running for attorney general. He’s also the head of the House General Investigating Committee, and in that role, sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency, along with a list of about 850 books, saying he is “initiating an inquiry into Texas school district content.”

He’s got a funny way of fighting cancel culture.

The first order of business, he wrote, is to find out how many of those titles each school district owns, how much they spent on them and whether they have any other books that talk about human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV or AIDS, sexually explicit images or illegal sexual behavior. He asked about books that “contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

The committee Krause chairs has a broad mandate to inquire into anything involving state government, “any agency or subdivision of government within the state,” spending of public money or “any other matter the committee considers necessary for the information of the legislature or the welfare and protection of state citizens.”

What’s more, they can “inspect the records, documents, and files and may examine the duties, responsibilities, and activities of each state department, agency, and officer and of each municipality, county, or other political subdivision of the state.”

There are questions about whether the chair’s book inquiry has the backing of his committee — some of them from his vice chair, Democrat Victoria Neave of Dallas — but the panel has the power to ask the questions Krause is asking. It’s right there in the House Rules.

As a matter of politics, the letter and the list are probably more important than whatever report the committee generates, if it generates anything at all.

Krause is in his fifth term in the House and has announced he’ll run in the Republican primary for attorney general in a race that already features Ken Paxton, the incumbent, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. That’s three people who’ve run at least one statewide race and one who hasn’t run for anything outside of Tarrant County.

Because of the book inquiry, more people know his name. Some of them — his current supporters and the pool of people like them he will need to win a statewide race — might like what he’s doing. It’s not like Krause is doing something contrary to his political history or previous policies; he’s just doing it for a bigger audience that could be beneficial in the GOP primary.

The school districts that received his request weren’t asked whether the books were in their curriculum of required or suggested reading, or just in their libraries. And in a state where so many arguments of the moment hinge on personal choices and mandates, that could be important.

Taking a book away from all of the children in a school is a mandate. So is requiring all of them to read it. Asking a teacher to substitute a book with something you don’t object to is one remedy. Leaving gnarly issues like that to the schools is another.

Don’t like something? Don’t read it. Book lists like this one don’t really change education and learning; they’re best for driving up book sales and boosting political reputations.

The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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