The New Wave of Book Banning

Photo by John-Mark Smith on

I’m interrupting my usual posting of book reviews to write about a troubling trend occurring in towns and state legislatures across the country. Book banning. There have long been challenges to books selected for school classes, usually centered around race, gender, and sexuality. In the past, it was a parent or group of parents. Rarely was a book actually banned. Rather, it was challenged. I joked that it was really just a ploy to sell that book. Booksellers featured “banned books,” sometimes bolstering the sales of books that likewise would have not gotten a lot of notice.

It’s not a joking matter any more. States are threatening criminal charges against librarians who place certain books in circulation. Books, such as The 1619 Project, which chronicles the presence of slavery in our country’s earliest history, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, have been banned by state legislatures on ideological grounds. It extends to novels as well, including Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and even, in Washington State Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, recently voted the best book of the last 125 years by The New York Times Book Review.

It seems to me that the fundamental notion is to protect students from exposure to certain ideas and materials. The problem is actually a version of my joke about bans promoting sales. When Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic fiction work Maus was recently banned in a Tennessee school district, the book immediately topped Amazon’s best-seller lists. One comic bookstore in Tennessee has offered the book free to anyone in the school district.

What is most troubling is the use of state power to dictate what books will and will not be permitted in libraries and classrooms. I am troubled because it seems that the targets are often frank discussion of matters of religion, of race, and sexuality. To limit the ideas that may be explored and discussed seems to me to be a profound abridgement of the First Amendment.

I know. Years ago, I was associated with a group facing loss of its privileges for what I would call view point discrimination. One of our allies was a First Amendment attorney who disagreed with our perspective but believed we needed to be free to hold and advocate it. I believe the same applies with books. We may not agree with the content of books but I believe we need to fight to protect access to those books.

You may have wondered about the picture of the Bible associated with this article. At least some who are seeking to criminalize defying a legislative ban claim to be Christians. I wonder if they understand how vigorously through history many governments have banned ownership and distribution of the Bible, and people have literally died to make the scriptures available or to obtain even a portion of the Bible.

And it can happen here, especially if we cross the bright line of protecting free speech in written as well as spoken form. The Bible, if one actually reads it, is not a tame book. It has unblinking accounts of rape and violence as well as elevated discourses on the nature of love. I know those who believe it is actually a danger to society. And I can easily see that if it becomes acceptable to criminalize the distribution of certain books, the same argument could be applied to the Bible. And any student of our politics knows that the pendulum will swing. We, of all people, should most oppose bans on books.

In the past, at least, the solution for speech that offends is not to ban it, but to allow more speech, where this does not incite violence or slander or deliberately mislead to the harm of another. It is to allow discussion and protect difference. With students, it is to teach them how to think critically–to recognize fundamental premises, to understand various rhetorical devices and when rhetoric substitutes for reason and evidence. The sad thing is our social media echo chambers only allow for more speech that agrees, that echoes the prevailing view. The danger is that we want to turn schools and universities into the same kinds of places, echo chambers of the left or right, rather than examine argument and counter-argument, narrative and counter-narrative. And so we perpetuate and deepen the divides so troubling us.

Working in college ministry, especially in the age of the internet, I’ve learned there is no way to “protect” people from ideas. As a parent, I concluded that we could not protect our son from any idea. Rather, we talked about them. And if I didn’t like the choices of books in every instance (and many times I did like them and discovered he was reading things I was interested in reading), I would share about others I thought were better. The truth is that to this day, we don’t agree on some things, and I’m glad. I oppose cloning human beings, especially our children!

Ultimately, the use of state power to ban books seems both to open the door to tyranny and is a concession of the weakness of the ideas behind such efforts. Instead of the power of an idea, we resort to the use of force and threat. And what we have lost as we do so is our democratic republic. Tyrannies of both the left and the right are tyrannies. The banning of books is the first step in silencing and marginalizing the people we don’t like. It is but a further step to strip them of their rights, and then their humanity or even their lives.

As I conclude, I would speak to my book-loving friends, many of whom cringe at even the destruction of books that cannot be sold. We have varying tastes and varying convictions. At very least, we ought be committed to affording protection to those of others that we would want for our own. None of us wants to see a beloved book banned, whether that be Fifty Shades of Gray, The Invisible Man, Pride and Prejudice or The Bible.

We cannot take comfort with the libraries with which we’ve surrounded ourselves nor the friends with whom we talk books. If this movement grows, we too could become a danger to the state. These efforts need to be resisted, challenged in court, and subverted, as did the comic book salesman, or those who slip banned books into Little Free Libraries or those at great risk who have smuggled Bibles or as those in Fahrenheit 451, who memorized great books. After January 6, 2021, I’ve concluded that the unthinkable can happen. Edmund Burke’s warning does not seem cliche’: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

11 thoughts on “The New Wave of Book Banning

  1. Very well said! One clarification, the Washington state district did not ban To Kill a Mockingbird. They removed it from required reading lists, while still allowing teachers to teach with it. This was done, at least in part, in response to Black students and parents who felt the book furthers a “white savior” narrative. I think there is a discussion to be had, and I sincerely hope a few good teachers take that up!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent summary of a very important issue. Although your blog reaches many folks, is there a way for you to publish this in a nationally read media? New Yorker or New York Times or America (the Jesuit national publication!) Not sure how one goes about it; but I would bet you know the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments. In most cases, either they would solicit the article based on my reputation (which I don’t have) or I could submit an article. I know the times recently featured an article on this trend, as have many other outlets. Certainly, you can help me circulate this by re-posting it on your own social media.


  3. Thank you, Bob, for the really good points and thoughts, well said. Sadly, as in so many discussions on polarizing ideas, the hyperbole that is common to both poles is not dissected and clarified here or in other discussions using the phrase “banning” books.
    One commenter noted that To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t banned; it was removed from required reading lists. This is a critical point. There is a difference between banning books (an impossible task in this techno age anyway) and making choices regarding books. Only the Library of Congress can even come close to having every single book in print. School libraries, home libraries, university libraries, city libraries, bookmobiles… choices must be made. There are so many wonderful books. Some books might be offensive to some readers, but the head librarian must choose. Bookshelf space is not unlimited. If a librarian chooses to remove a book to make room for one deemed “better,” “more relevant,” that is not banning it. It is removing it. It is an attempt to improve the library. It may or may not be an improvement, but that book is still available through the inter-library loan system (a free service) or just going to a larger library, book store, e-book source, or online sales – new, used, or out of print.

    Another facet to this conversation is maturity, discretion, and wisdom. We parents would never read Slaughterhouse 5, Fifty Shades of Gray, or a book on the horrors of Auschwitz to a three-year-old as a bedtime story, or put a picture book of the news photos of the newly discovered skeletal survivors, on that toddler’s bedroom bookshelf. That’s not book banning, that’s wisdom and discretion, and it is hoped and expected that when that child is old enough to not succumb to night terrors, but be moved to deep compassion and righteous anger, many previously inappropriate books would be among their reading choices. An elementary library will have different books on the limited shelves than those in a preschool or high school. That’s not banning. A student could propose a book off the suggested reading list, one obtained from home or the public library or online, if the parents and teachers agree it fits the parameters of a particular assignment.

    Most conversations speak only of “banning books” – when the real issue is book availability in a local setting. In many ways, book banning is just the reverse of mandatory reading. Personally, I’m in favor of having a wide list of really good books, ones that delve into ideas and cultures and times the students might not choose on their own.

    Books are generally culled, not banned. They are often culled because of point of view, and that is due to pressure or opinions of the librarian, the parent, the public, the teacher – either side, any side, any point of view. Like most issues, the pressures come from both directions, both poles. Books, like ideas, need to be chosen wisely and widely… but not banned, not from either pole.

    Liked by 1 person

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