Some Questions About Banned Books Week

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association.

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association.

This is Banned Books Week (September 27 to October 3). Schools, libraries, and booksellers are proclaiming the evil of attempts to ban books, publishing lists of the top banned books of the past year (here is one), and featuring these books prominently for lending or buying.

Please understand: I think attempts to ban access to any books are both unconstitutional and stupid. Unconstitutional because of the First Amendment, which provides broad protections of speech, even speech which is offensive. Many call this our First Freedom and for good reason.

It’s also stupid. Nearly all challenges to books fail, and only spotlight the very books people are trying to ban. It strikes me that attempts to ban books take the focus off the quality of the book and make the author something of a “martyr” and give the book the allure of forbidden fruit.

But I have some questions about the “banned books” phenomenon, which strikes me as “the outrage of the week”.

  1. Is this really the big deal it is made out to be? In 2014, there were 311 reported challenges of books. That is less than 1 challenge for each million people in this country and only a bit over 6 per state. Yes it could be argued that any challenges are too many but is this really a big deal?
  2. How many books are actually “banned” in the US? I am unable to find statistics on this. The American Library Association’s Banned Books website indicates that “most” challenges are unsuccessful and most materials remain accessible. At very least, it might be more honest to call this week “Challenged Books Week” because I suspect that is mostly what it is–although I understand the alliteration and rhetorical value of the term “banned”.
  3. It is striking to me that a number of the “challenges” are by parents to school curriculum. I would observe that curriculum may be distinguished from libraries in public discussion. Curriculum is what students must read, study, and intellectually engage to accomplish educational objectives. Every curriculum includes–and excludes–certain materials based on these educational objectives and this is not regarded as censorship because those materials excluded are still accessible in libraries or via booksellers. Parents, whose taxes or tuition support the schools, are stakeholders in these decisions, along with educators, and local and state boards of education. Are all questions by parents about the educational merits of books to be labeled as “censorship”–particularly if the effort does not seek to ban access to the book in question in school or public libraries? Access implies choice of what one will read. Curriculum is generally mandated, with some opportunities for “opt outs” or “alternatives”–a very different thing.
  4. I would argue all attempts to challenge and ban books in libraries are wrong. Period. But I would also observe the librarians make decisions about the acquisition of materials and the suitability of materials, particularly for children. In acquiring materials, I suspect librarians weigh a combination of factors including community preferences as well as some basic values that probably result in excluding materials that are blatantly racist, intolerant, or simply represent inferior aesthetic or intellectual value. There is only so much “shelf space” in any library. Are the librarians themselves using their institutional power to “ban” books in what they decide not to acquire? Most of us would say “no” but this argues for a legitimate form of discrimination in selecting what librarians deem the “best” books for their clientele.
  5. Finally, I wonder if both those who attempt to ban books, as well as those who vehemently defend them divert us from the more important discussion, which is an assessment of the quality of a given work. And I suspect that in the “banned” lists there are both works of great artistic excellence and those which time will judge as mediocre.

What I would propose is that the focus on banned books (by ban-ners as well as defenders) may keep us from focusing on better books. Granted, we may have different ideas of what is better, and we should allow the difference, and access to the different choices. But that discussion might just elevate, even a bit, the choices we make, which might just elevate us as people. Better books, not banned books–now there’s an idea…

[Postscript: The issue of banned books and limits on free speech is a real issue in many countries. I also wonder if a more constructive use of the energy that goes into a week like this would be to work with legislators, those who administer foreign policy, the press, and others to press for greater speech freedoms in these countries, a basic human right.]

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.

Where is “Miss Manners” When We Need Her?

In the last two days, I’ve observed three incidents of page administrators or blog owners who have needed to clarify what are appropriate comments or posts on their pages. It is interesting that two of them brought up the question of censorship. Apparently, this accusation was hurled at them by individuals whose posts were taken down. In one instance, the post was unrelated to the stated purpose of the blog and to the material in the particular post. This is an instance of “hi-jacking”, that is using someone’s site to promote an agenda other than the site owner’s or administrator’s. In another instance, it was because of the offensive language and personal attacks used by a person posting on the site.

The Real Miss Manners: “Judith Martin, Miami Bookfair International, 1989” by MDCarchives – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The truth is that this would fall under some usages of the word censorship. Broadcast media will “bleep” profanity. Magazines will simply refuse to print letters or other content submitted to them that falls outside their editorial purposes. One might argue that there is an appropriate form of censorship that says no particular media outlet must publish or broadcast whatever a person wants to say using their free speech rights.  I would argue that this extends to “new media” like blogs, Facebook pages and other interactive social media. Part of the “freedom of the press” of these outlets is to determine what they will and won’t publish. And those whose ideas are not accepted on certain blogs or pages are free to establish their own pages where they can freely express their ideas, and in turn determine what things fall outside the purpose of those pages.

Invidious censorship is different.  It is the effort of an outside body, whether a group of citizens or a government agency that seeks to prevent the publication or suppress the expression of ideas considered objectionable. The American Library Association (as quoted on this PBS site) puts it well:

What Is Censorship? Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.

For the ALA, technically censorship means the “The Removal of material from open access by government authority.” The ALA also distinguishes various levels of incidents in respect to materials in a library which may or may not lead to censorship: Inquiry, Expression of Concern, Complaint, Attack, and Censorship.

What the page admins and blog owners I mentioned above were dealing with is simply bad manners. It is bad manners to “hi-jack” conversations to promote one’s own agenda. It is bad manners to engage in personal attacks. It is bad manners to use profanity or coarse language in mixed company, which is what the internet is. Most of the time, this behavior is simply the result of individuals known around the ‘net as “trolls”. But one of their tactics is to hurl the accusation of “censorship” as a cover for their own bad manners and inappropriate behavior. Blog owners and page administrators should have no qualms about removing content like this. Sadly, I’ve seen some groups that run amuck because absentee administrators refuse to step in.

So far, I’ve personally experienced relatively few instances of this behavior. Here are my own (still evolving) guidelines for dealing with it:

1. I won’t tolerate profanity or ad hominem attacks, either upon myself or others. Let’s disagree without demonizing or using degrading language!

2. I also won’t tolerate posting comments unrelated to a post, particularly self-promoting or commercial material, but also anything that “hi-jacks” the conversation.

3. I try not to include spoilers in my review of fiction. If you include spoilers in your comments, I will take them down. I still like you, but I don’t want to spoil the end for others.

4. When in doubt, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and try to respond graciously. If you are a real person (and not a commercial entity or a “bot”) and have taken the time to read what I write, I appreciate that and hope we can have a thoughtful conversation.

On my “About” page, I write, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world. My hope is that this blog will contribute to the latter.” I hope you will hold me accountable to that standard in all I write on this blog, even as I hold others to this standard in their comments.

If you blog, or administer any pages, how do you approach “off topic” or otherwise inappropriate comments?