It’s that time of year again and this will be my fifth (fifth! My God!) post on Banned Books Week. While I have used another curse word in the title in previous editions, I thought I might switch it up to one of my favorite English (as in UK, not as language) curse words. My thoughts on the week have evolved as I’ve learned more about the week, how it is treated, and the circumstances around it. Eventually, I’ll tell you the whole story behind some of these thoughts, but that’s for another
In seeing the pictures shared on social media of various banned book displays, I keep feeling like there is an element missing from those exhibits. There is lots of emphasis on the fact that the books have been challenged or banned and how subversive, notorious, or socially unacceptable they are, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold approach to enticing people to consider reading them. But I haven’t seen is an explanations provided as to why those books have been challenged or banned. Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t one of the main reasons for the week is to talk about the controversy surrounding the content? It’s like asking about the contents of healthy meal and being told, “just eat it, it’s good for you”. Here, read this, someone else didn’t like it enough to try to get it removed somewhere for… reasons.
The only thing I’ve seen that has worked to address the underlying reasons has been Kelly Jensen’s excellent post on Bookriot. She gives a brief explanation as well as links to primary sources for some of the latest book challenges. These abstracts are short enough that I can see someone printing them out and adding them as a insert into the books on their display. The only thing I feel is missing is a closing argument as to why the person should read it anyway. “Here’s a book, here’s why people have challenged it, and here’s why you should read it.” And not one of those “make up your own mind” positions, but something more akin to reader’s advisory about the plot, characters, and the kind of story it tells. This is the kind of follow through that I believe is necessary to show the literary and artistic merits that are so commonly called upon as a defense of the work. Simply hanging a bunch of signs to denote their challenged or banned status is all style with no substance.
Beyond that, I think an important underlying principle that gets lost in the push for people to read these books is the freedom to discuss the ideas they represent. If the purpose of the event is the preservation of differing and possibly unpopular perspectives, then where is the call for dialogue? I can hear my cynical heart mocking me on this point, snickering while it says, “Oh yes, civil discourse on the internet. Good luck with that.” I concede that fact that there is a unhealthy amount of online discussions that split in the factions of “I’m right” versus “You’re an asshole”; and those that don’t start that way can very easily end up marching slowly towards Godwin territory.
Even more troubling to me is seeing some of my librarian peers who proclaim their love of intellectual freedom but react poorly when actually faced with differing viewpoints. It is not a trait unique to the library world, but it is one of believing in the freedom of expression so long as it is words of agreement. I’m not sure how people so eloquently manage such cognitive dissonance, but it’s pretty breathtaking to see in action. I’ll concede that the human mind is capable of many kinds of contradictions, but bragging how open minded you are while marginalizing those who don’t agree with you is still pretty damn amazing. To wit, it reminds of that famous quote from the television journalist Edward R. Murrow.
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
Even so, there should be a call for debate on the issues that get brought up related to the work. The issues that they face, the decisions the characters make, and the implications of their actions are all worthy of examination. Furthermore, when it comes to children’s, juvenile, and young adult literature, the content versus the relative maturity of the audience is also an important conversation to have. The middle ground is overshadowed by the reactions of the extremes, leaving very little room for compromise or dialogue. I know these aren’t new to anyone, but they seem to be discarded easily once the lines have been drawn.
For my part, I helped put together a national campaign to encourage people (librarians, library staff, the public, anyone) to report book challenges or removals to the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the ALA about two years ago. It’s still there, it’s still important, and I still hold out hope that people take a moment to be courageous and speak up, even if it is anonymously. Jessamyn West has a nice roundup as to what different groups are doing for Banned Books Week so take a moment to check it out.