Banning…Or Curating?

pyramid of transparency_updated“Every time you turn around, it seems a school somewhere is banning a book after parental complaints. What we should or shouldn’t be allowing–or requiring–students to read is a topic of constant, heated debate.”

This is the opening paragraph in a recent Bookriot article. I would contend that the writer is engaging in a bit of hyperbole. In 2016, according to the American Library Association, there were 323 challenges of all sorts, including challenges to databases, filtering, speakers, programs, or social media, as well as to books. That is less than one challenge per million people living in this country or just over six challenges in each state, on average The ALA contends this may be only about 10 percent of all actual challenges, which would mean there might be 3230 challenges, yet they quote a number of 10,766 but give no rationale for this number. Furthermore, these numbers are dropping. In 1995, 762 books were challenged. The reality is, in most cases the challenges are unsuccessful.

I do think we have to take a look at the reasons these books are challenged. Primarily, especially in the most recent top ten, the subject matter of the books which is objected often has to do with content that is sexually objectionable for a particular age group, or is “transgressive” on terms of sexuality, violence, drug use or language. One of the top 10 books was by Bill Cosby, challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author. Particularly in the light of #MeToo allegations, I think a credible case could be made for not promoting works by this author. We are “banning” figures facing similar allegations from political office, media positions and other workplaces.

The puzzling thing is that on the one hand we are promoting books that violate traditional sexual moral standards, and then attacking people, mostly men who make unwanted sexual advances against women. In no way, in writing this am I justifying these acts, which are inexcusable, nor suggesting that the one causes the other. Nor am I necessarily contending that such books should be “banned” from schools or libraries, particularly if they are of high literary merit, or if non-fiction, represent a well-argued and researched account the deals with different views fairly.

What troubles me more is the double rhetorical standard applied to this discussion. When parents object to books being available to their children that seem to affirm what they would view as transgressive, it is called “challenging, banning, and censorship.” But what is it called when librarians decide not to acquire books by white supremacists, by homophobic writers, or others of their ilk? It is called “curating” and even though the decisions they make affect the selection of books in the stacks for adults (not children), few people challenge the librarians for violating intellectual freedom. If one flipped the rhetoric, one could contend that librarians are the single largest group of book banners around, making conscious decisions to exclude far more titles than parents or patrons ever do.

I happen to think the librarians who make such choices are entirely justified in doing so and I would agree with them. But is there any role parents have in “curating” the books their children are exposed to? At very least, is there not a place for them in the decision processes, particular given the fact that there are only so many books that can be included in a curriculum, or in a library?

I would also observe that no one is banning these books from book stores or challenging stores for selling them. And with our online sellers, anything in print or e-book format is a click away. In fact, “banned books” are a bonanza for booksellers who promote them each year.

If we really care about “banned books” we may want to look at the books that are truly banned in other countries, beginning with the sacred scriptures of any religion not in the majority. In repressive regimes, books about democracy are often prohibited. In patriarchal regimes, books advocating the rights of women are banned. In some countries possession of some books is considered criminal.

Personally, I think trying to challenge or ban a book is a fool’s errand. I think a better tactic is for parents to read these books with their children and talk about them. I also think some questions we might explore more in curating books that our children are exposed to are:

  • What are some of the best books by age group, across different subject areas, that have stood the test of time, as well as newer books of widely recognized excellence, to which we want our children exposed?
  • What books will encourage our children to be readers?
  • What books will cultivate a sense of our history, our shared values, and highest aspirations, appealing to the better, rather than lesser, angels of our nature?

One thing everyone in this discussion agrees upon is that books matter. They shape our view of the world and the way we live. In an era where people may be reading less, might there be more discussion of how we might foster literacy and a lifelong love of reading. That seems to me a far more worthwhile endeavor than discussing what not to read.

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.