02 October 2011

In which I am a crank about Banned Books Week.

So last week was Banned Books Week. I know as book folk I should be all gung-ho about this; but while of course I support the freedom to read, every year I get curmudgeonly about the way BBW is celebrated. And every year I intend to write about why. This year, I'm doing it.

My objections are twofold. First: Challenging is not banning.
When you read the lists of "banned books" posted in libraries or bookstores or circulated online, what you're mostly seeing is challenged books, meaning (according to the ABA website) someone filed a written complaint about them, asking them to be removed from a library or school. OK, fine. How much, really, does that mean? Anyone can object to a book (that's the other side of free speech), but objecting--even officially airing said objections--does not keep anyone from reading, shelving, or assigning a book. And while the ABA compiles lists and statistics of frequently challenged books, they admit that "most" and "a majority" of these challenges fail--yet they don't provide numbers, which seems disingenuous to me, as there's a difference between, say, 55% of challenges not resulting in bans as opposed to 85% . . . and, honestly, in the absence of such statistics, I'm inclined to believe it's closer to the latter. I can live with that.

Two: Schools and libraries are not governments.
Let's assume, though, that a challenge does go through, and a book is removed from a library's shelves, or a school's reading list. That's a shame, but does this honestly prevent access to the book? Only from that one source--which I strongly doubt is the main source for books for most teenagers. Even I, bookish to a fault, never checked anything out from my high school library--I went to the public library, or the Borders down the street, or just hopped online. Books--in the United States--are not hard to get, and their being challenged does very little to make this harder. Look back at that list of frequently challenged books for 2010, for example: it contains both Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, both of which have sold millions of copies. How on earth can anyone refer to these as "banned books"?
To me, a banned book is an illegal book: a book whose sale or possession results in criminal charges. And in the United States in 2011, I am unaware of this being the case for any book whatsoever. Even The Anarchist's Cookbook is $5 on the Kindle.
However, many countries do outlaw books, even countries we think of as progressive and free. Mein Kampf is illegal to own in Austria, with a possible jail sentence of 5-10 years. Australia won't sell American Psycho to people under 18. And Iris Chang's Rape of Nanking took ten years to be published in Japan. Matters are worse in some parts of the Middle East--a co-worker* from Palestine to whom I complained about the U.S. BBW said that it's definitely a problem there.
I think we should talk about this, here, during Banned Books Week. We should post lists of books that couldn't be published in their author's home countries, that found a home here. We should read from them at BBW events, instead of The Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter. We should celebrate how incredibly free we are.

*Oh yeah, did I mention my triumphant return to bookselling September 15? Full-time weekdays at Posman Books in Grand Central Terminal! I cannot express how happy and relieved I am: it would require interpretive dance or several LOLcats.


  1. You're absolutely right. A banned book is one that government has got its grubby paws on as you so rightly point out. In fact, the campaign to allow D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover into Canada made one constitutional lawyer and poet's career (F.R. Scott).

    A group of parents collecting a few signatures and petitioning their local school to get The Catcher in the Rye of their school's reading list does not a banned book make. So cheers for writing this post! :)

  2. I agree with most of this. The only disagreement is that schools and local libraries, in the legal context, kinda are the government. Your point, though, about these books being removed from schools not preventing people from accessing them is spot on.

  3. Yeah, I suppose I mean "national government." It's the power to jail that I'm really concerned with.

  4. I thought I might share my experiences of book banning attempts.
    I was teaching high school in Zion, Illinois and we had several parents and the minister of their church fail in the attempt to ban 'To Kill a Mockingbird' reasoning that it is corrupting because it is a book about sex. None of them had read the book, a proud avowal on their parts. Serious thought was given to banning by the school board.
    The second time was in Batavia Illinois. We had a nice little library at my children's school. A mother wanted all books about witches banned. 'The Little Witch' had been checked out by her daughter. The schools were promoting satanism! Were we teaching devil worship? She also failed, but much discussion ensued.
    I remember a much different time when Joseph McCarthy held sway. My parents worried about the contents of their personal libraries. Librarians were on the front lines in that battle, and it was a serious battle. Massive public book burning, careers lost, jail time for owning the wrong books, espousing the wrong opinion, having the wrong political opinion. That was truly frightening. That is the reason I think banning from school lists and libraries is a horrible impeachment of civil liberties. Things start small. They can grow enormous.
    ( as a dinosaur, I cant figure out how else to post this, but it's M. Asaph)


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