Every fall the publishing industry—excuse me, the “national books community”—engages in the self-promotional frenzy known as “Banned Books Week.” It comes complete with #BannedBooksWeek hashtags, events at public libraries, and high-minded declarations from authors. This may help book sales, but it only harms our ability to take books seriously.
The first dishonest thing about “Banned Books Week” is the name. The books being celebrated have–at worst–been kept out of public or school libraries. One can object to this, but can one really say that such a book has been banned? Say I’m a librarian at a grade school and I decide not to devote school funds and shelf space to Mein Kampf and 120 Days of Sodom but instead to The Berenstain Bears. This is a questionable choice, I admit (The Berenstain Bears are also quite terrible), but it does not constitute a “ban.” Shouldn’t the people who claim they care about words be a little more careful in how they use them?
“Banned Books Week” claims to celebrate books, but it really shows contempt for them. If we don’t think that books can do evil as well as good, we don’t really believe in their power. Just as a book can lead one into new visions of life, it can mislead into false and destructive ones. This is a fact that should be fearfully acknowledged, not casually celebrated.
As publicity stunts go, “Banned Books Week” is about as ignorant, anti-intellectual, and philistine as the so-called “Ideas Festival.” As with books, there is nothing inherently good about “ideas” as such. Some are good; some are evil. Killing all Jews is an idea that someone once had. We should not celebrate it. This same person also wrote a book about that idea. We should not celebrate it either, no matter how many times it has been banned.
Free speech is not absolute. Our attempts to deregulate our public culture have only led to new and more bizarre restrictions on speech. Shedding restrictions on obscenity has only led to the more tyrannical notion of “triggering.” Abandoning standards for public decency has hastened the embrace of political correctness—a category even more susceptible to ideological control. Because words, ideas, and images all matter, humans cannot tolerate a total free-for-all. Pretending that they can has only led to irrational, back-end restrictions on speech that would have been unthinkable in earlier times. “Banned Books Week” only furthers our delusions that a laissez-faire approach to standards will allow excellence to thrive.
A better way to celebrate “Banned Books Week” is to draw up one’s own list of the books that should be banned if they could be banned. Here’s my own (admittedly subjective) list:
- Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, etc. by Ayn Rand
Badly written and tendentious, Rand’s books give readers a tidy explanation of matters personal, economic, and political. Her materialist and godless world is also a perverse and cruel one.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Also badly written and tendentious, Coates’s books give readers a tidy explanation of matters personal, economic, and political. His materialist and godless world is also a perverse and cruel one. Excuse me if I seem to repeat myself—it’s hard not to. Coates is quickly becoming the Left’s answer to Rand. Better to stop him before the transformation is complete.
- The Decameron by Boccaccio
The alternate title Boccaccio provided for his masterpiece is “Prince Galahalt,” a reference to the book in the Divine Comedy that tempts Paolo and Francesca into damning sin. The body of the book delivers on the subtitle’s provocative promise with adultery, buggery, orgy, misogyny, and more. Banning this uproarious and beautiful book is an act of respect—today as much as in 1559.
- Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
This book has done more to damage the minds and deform the consciences of American elites than any other. It popularized the intellectual vice of thinking that economics can provide tidy explanations for every phenomenon, and it advances the repellently racist argument that the way to reduce crime is to kill lots of black babies.
- Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
The real story of this book is not that Atticus Finch is a racist; it’s that the American publishing industry is happy to exploit an old woman to make a quick buck. Less for its actual content than its means of production, Go Set A Watchman needs to be banned.
- The New International Version of the Bible
This one should please atheists rankled by other entries on the list. Banning the Bible is beyond even Richard Dawkins’ wildest dreams! In this case, though, the ban is done for religious reasons. The NIV too often tries to promote right faith at the expense of faithfulness to the text. (Protestant readers might want to investigate the ESV.) Whether you love God or hate him, this is a Bible worth banning.
- All of Mark Twain
This will undoubtedly anger some readers, but Twain passed preposterously harsh and irresponsible judgments on history, and it’s time for history to return to the favor. Any man who can say “If we really think about it, there were two Reigns of Terror; in one people were murdered in hot and passionate violence; in the other they died because people were heartless and did not care,” (the latter referring to people who died of starvation) should not be trusted with a pen. As John Kennedy Toole’s fictional hero Ignatius J. Reilly observed, “Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.” He shares that honor with “Banned Books Week.”