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.