The last week of September was National Banned Book Week in America, a celebratory campaign the American Library Association sponsors every year to highlight the freedom we have to read. The event also includes an unveiling of the list of most challenged books for the year.
The good news is that Americans seek to ban fewer books today than they used to. The number of books challenged in 2015 was reported to be 275, compared to 311 the previous year. The number of books actually removed from libraries was even smaller. To put these numbers into some kind of perspective: There are nearly 320 million Americans using 123,000 libraries that lent 2.4 billion materials in the fiscal year 2014. We are a nation that reads freely.
Every year when ALA launches it Banned Book Week media outlets publish stories about people who have challenged the reading or placement of books in schools and public libraries. Prison libraries are chided for banning Dante’s Inferno but not Mein Kampf—and for limiting the book selections of prisoners at all. This year, librarians in Washington, D.C. hid books around town labeled with black and white covers that said “filthy,” “trashy,” “profane,” and “pornography” in a kind of banned book scavenger hunt.
According to TIME magazine, the most frequently given reason for banning books is sexually explicit content. But the dialogue surrounding “book bans” has changed. Librarians now tally up what they call “challenges to diversity.” As defined by the ALA, this includes “books by and about people of color, LGBT people, and/or disabled people.” The ALA explains diversity as:
Non-white main and/or secondary characters; LGBT main and/or secondary characters; disabled main and/or secondary characters; issues about race or racism; LGBT issues; issues about religion, which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism; issues about disability and/or mental illness; non-Western settings, in which the West is North America and Europe.
“In some ways, Banned Books Week is an index of the things mainstream America is troubled by and still trying to figure out,” James LaRue, head of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom told Time magazine. He blames many recent attempts to ban books on “a previous majority of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants” who are “kind of moving into a minority, and there’s this lashing out to say, ‘Can we just please make things the way that they used to be?’” LaRue added, “We don’t get many challenges by diverse people.”
But it’s worth wondering how LaRue knows how “diverse” the people who challenge books are; the form to alert ALA to a “book challenge” requires only two fields of information – the title of the book and the state where the challenge occurred. Nowhere does it ask anyone to list the skin color of a book challenger, their ethnic origins, their house of worship, or their views on any social or political issue.
LaRue clarified that anti-religious people sometimes seek to ban books too, but their censorship efforts are by “people that are just questioning in a larger sense what is the appropriate role of religion in our society,” which is evidently less problematic for him than a religious person who, say, doesn’t want their middle school child reading explicit descriptions of sex, drug use or suicide. Let’s forget for a moment—as the ALA seems to have done—that books, especially great and powerful books, and even not-great books, are best read when a person is mature enough to understand what they are reading. This does not mean that books should be banned, but as a society let’s not ignore that ideas are hardly ever wholly good or wholly bad (or appropriate) to every reader at any given time. Society has spent decades and centuries grappling with certain books and their legacies.
Looking back through ALA challenged book lists over the past years, you find that many books that are challenged are books for younger readers at school-based libraries, and many of these books contained lots of different kinds of sex. On the questions of books and children, and especially the portrayal and meaning of sex, the issue of what should be offered to children (and how it should be told) has long been hotly debated. And that’s a good thing.
So why is the ALA claiming to know the motivations of people who want to ban books? Parents might object to explicit sex scenes, but the ALA thinks it has found ulterior motives (such as racism). ALA spokesmen argue that “it may in fact be an underlying and unspoken factor: the work is about people and issues others would prefer not to consider:”
For instance, a book that often recurs in previous years’ top ten challenges is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. While it has sex in it, and that’s often the complaint, many other books also have sex, and are not challenged. Is the underlying motivation for the challenge racism? Sometimes, it surely is. In other cases, of course, a complaint genuinely may be about precisely what the challenger says it is.
I’m no advocate of banning books, nor of asking (or telling) librarians to remove books from libraries or schools, or for telling other people and their children what they can read. I would fear the return of book burning rallies. Parents shouldn’t seek to ban books from public places. But they should take a greater interest in what their children read, and should feel free to argue that a particular book is not age, grade level, or content appropriate for their child.
As one librarian was quoted saying during Banned Book Week, the library model has always presumed that parents take an ardent interest and have a say in what their children read. I grant my children (what I view as) liberal access to books of various genres and tones, but I also reject requests to read certain books. I am willing to explain to them why I reject certain ideas and books as tools to teach them because I am my children’s first librarian and I get to choose the diverse book catalogue to which we give them access. Ban books? No. But don’t ban the idea that parents have a right to decide what’s best for their children to read, or assume that they have ulterior motives for doing so.