What Do These Have in Common?

Bible and Fifty

You might say both have very frank portrayals of human sexuality and some steamy reading (you have read Song of Solomon have you not?) and you would not be wrong. What may surprise you is that both made the top ten most challenged books of 2015 with Fifty Shades coming in number two and the Bible number six. Here is the list, including reasons challenged, which is compiled by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom each year and published during National Library Week:

  1. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  2. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and other (“poorly written,” “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”).
  3. I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
    Reasons: Inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint, and unsuited for age group.
  4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin
    Reasons: Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”).
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
    Reasons: Offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“profanity and atheism”).
  6. The Holy Bible
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint.
  7. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
    Reasons: Violence and other (“graphic images”).
  8. Habibi, by Craig Thompson
    Reasons: Nudity, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  9. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, and violence.
  10. Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan
    Reasons: Homosexuality and other (“condones public displays of affection”).

I was actually disappointed that no one complained about the sexually explicit or violent material in the Bible, which is honest about both. Basically, sexuality-related concerns, language, violence, and religious viewpoints dominate the list.

There are several things about the challenged book list that bother me both about the phenomenon of challenging books and compiling lists.

  1. It strikes me that this is another instance of manufactured outrage. This past year there was a grand total of 275 challenges, down from 311 the previous year. This is 5.5 challenges per state, and less than one challenge for every million people in this country. There are nearly 120,000 libraries of various kinds in this country. This is one challenge for every 436 libraries. While challenging books is just plain stupid, which I will say more about, this does not seem to be such a big crisis, and is decreasing in frequency. Compared to opioid addiction, gun violence, labor and sex trafficking, or our broken political discourse, this rates pretty far down the list.
  2. What one doesn’t hear is that a challenge is simply a request that materials be removed from a library or school because of content or appropriateness. I’m curious about whether any books have actually been “banned”. My suspicion is that a number of these complaints come when the books are assigned and there are no alternates provided, or when parents, students, and/or teachers handle such situations ineptly.
  3. I wonder if those who challenge books realize that they are probably vastly expanding the circulation of a book. This years list will certainly be featured in late September during “Banned Books Week” which I contend is a misnomer because books are rarely if never banned in this country, and in fact the books’ circulation and sales are enhanced during these weeks as the books are featured at bookstores and by online vendors. (For a person of faith like myself, I wonder if this will increase sales of the Bible as well, which I think would be cool.)
  4. I do think the attempt to challenge or ban a book is stupid and subject to the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” rule, illustrated by the inclusion of the Bible in this list. It is also stupid because books are so easily accessible through a variety of means including a few taps on the screen of a smartphone.
  5. Finally, this obscures the hidden ways books are “banned” by those who curate libraries and bookstores. New authors, or writers voicing an unpopular opinion may be “banned” even if their book is technically for sale on Amazon. All librarians and booksellers decide not to acquire some books, but there is no outrage about this. The only outrage is when a relatively popular book, or trending book among the literati, is challenged, even when it is realized that the challenge is futile.

What is fascinating is that we rarely hear of books banned as part of the systematic suppression of human rights in others countries. Nor are those the books featured in the Banned Books Week promotions, in most cases. So while I will admit to being a fan of libraries and think banning books to be stupid as well as unconstitutional, I wonder if the ALA and all who care about literacy might spend more time during National Library Week and throughout the year talking, not of “banned” books but better books. We can read only so many books in our lives and associations like the ALA can serve us by pointing us to things worthy of our attention (and in fact many libraries are doing just that). Those are the lists I want to see!

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