I spent some time this weekend considering banned books, the banning of books, the burning of books, and censorship generally. Good times.
I wondered to what extent banning requests were being exploited as another political or ideological tool. To find out, I headed to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (online, of course), which tracks and publishes challenges and ban requests. I needn’t have spent so much time there, though. Later in the day, the New York Times published an article answering my questions. There is a range of efforts, campaigns to shape the shelves of U.S. libraries. They include efforts to criminalize the stocking of the shelves by librarians and others who choose works that go against conservative preferences.
A rapidly increasing body of efforts take aim at public school libraries on a platform of exercising parental rights over what children can or must read. In 2020, half of the challenges to public libraries generally were brought by parents. ALA’s OIF provides details as to the basis for some of the challenges of years past. After scrolling through a list of challenges to the top 100 American Novels, I wondered if I could support some of the requests that centered around age appropriateness in cases of required reading. I personally read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my late twenties, and it was rough content. It was an amazing book, but I could see that I might want to be sure my child was ready before requiring that. It’s certainly a balancing act.
It seems, though, that the balancing act is going to get harder instead of easier. Thanks to publicity around book banning efforts, newly banned books are flying off shelves faster than hotcakes off a diner griddle on Sunday. The New York Post reported that after a Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winner Maus last week, the 30-year old graphic novel series soared to the top of Amazon’s charts, breaking through the Best-selling Graphic Novels category into the Overall Best-Selling category. The book is not only back ordered due to demand, but an online fundraiser to purchase the books free for students generated over $80,000.
One of the most important books in my life was a frequent flier on the banned and challenged lists. By the time I read Go Ask Alice, it had already been banned by some middle schools and high schools. The 1971 book was purportedly the diary of a teenager who fell into drug addiction. It was raw and graphic. It endured years of challenges, appearing among the top 10 most challenged books in 2003. I read the book in 6th grade, at 11 years of age. What it did for me was to strip every bit of glamour off drug use.
By the time I finished that book, I understood drugs to be a bad trade – a trade where I would give up myself and my self control to awful people in exchange for fleeting experiences. That book single-handedly helped shape my perspective and life choices for the better. As a former two-and-a-half-pack-a-day smoker, I can tell you that I likely wouldn’t have been a dabbler in the drug world had I chosen to enter it. It probably saved my life. That’s the power of a book.
Those who try to ban books may meet with initial success. Still, they may just be advertising for the very books they hope to restrict. In the end, I believe they sow seeds that will become forbidden fruits of which many will take note and interest, and ultimately ingest. I say, “Let the feast begin!”