Why “Banning” Books is Self-Defeating

We recently “celebrated” another Banned Books Week (September 21-27). Personally, I’ve always thought the strategy of banning books to be self-defeating. Rarely does it work, and even if it does, it just calls attention to the book that was banned or challenged and moves it up in ranking on the banned books lists. And it is just un-American to suppress free speech.

Actually, I think this plays right into the hands of libraries and booksellers who have a field day publicizing the books that have been challenged (the vast majority) or banned (a relative few). During Banned Books Week, any library or bookstore worth its stripes features “the list” of banned books making them readily available for borrowing or buying. Often this is accompanied with attractive posters celebrating our “freedom to read”. Part of the attraction is the age old attraction of what seems to be “forbidden fruit.”

What is surprising to me are the relatively small numbers of challenges a year–roughly 300 to 500 in a given year according to the American Library Association website. There are 120,096 libraries of all kinds in the US. There are 13,588 public school systems in the country. And we are a nation of over 300 million people. It seems like a pretty big brouhaha over a relatively small number of challenges, most of which are unsuccessful.

One wonders at some of the books that are challenged or banned–To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451, A Wrinkle in Time, and Brave New World among them. Sure, some of these books have adult themes, but it seems to me that it might be better to discuss these in a classroom (and at home with mom and dad) rather than to furtively read these on the sly. Some of the others seem to be more the trendy “coming of age” fiction that often gets featured for teen readers. I suspect no one will read any of this in fifty years–they won’t need to be banned. In case you are interested, here is the list of those banned or challenged most in the last decade. The one surprise for me was that The Joy of Gay Sex came in at number 78!

I have to say I am curious why some of these are used in classrooms but I wouldn’t try to ban them. I suspect that part of the answer is that teachers think they can get students to read these books and are doubtful about some of greater worth. Our own philosophy when we were doing the parenting thing was one not of banning books but trying to foster a taste for what we thought were better books. Rather than say, “don’t eat those hot dogs” we wanted to say “why don’t you try a bit of this really good steak.” Could it be that the mark of a good reading teacher is not just the percent of his or her students who pass proficiency exams but how many of their students develop a love for reading and what kinds of books their students read?

The one thing that I think teachers and librarians might think about is the question of what books are they saying “no” to in order to say “yes” to the ones they use in classes or purchase for libraries. Are there certain kinds of books, or certain perspectives that are not represented? Inevitably choices are made. It is often harder to figure out what is not there, but this too is a kind of banning of books, not in the overt sense of asking for a book not to be used in a class or removed from the shelves. Rather, it is the book that is never seen or not used. Those who “curate” these choices have a special responsibility to make sure that their own ideological commitments don’t bias their choices.

What seems far more constructive though less sensational than trying to ban books is to share in your home and other settings the books you think of worth and buy them from local booksellers, give them as gifts, and request them from your library. In an age of limited shelf space, circulation certainly drives selection, just as sales drive what is in stock. Rather than banning books, hopefully we can cultivate a society that wants and recognizes better books that nurture in us the good, the true, and the beautiful.

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