October 1, 2009
I support the reading of banned and challenged books
(Yes, I’m way more entertained than I have any reason to be by finding a way to title each blog entry this week with “I support…” Alternate titles for this post are “Thoughts on Banned Books Week” (*yawn*) and “Fear of a Gay Penguin,” which of course I keep accidentally mis-typing as “Fear of a Black Penguin,” though that works, too, I suppose…)
Here we are again: Banned Books Week. I support the goals of this week as traditionally stated, because I’m a big fan of the First Amendment, and I think more often than not people challenge books not because those books would truly be damaging to children/adolescents or the general public, but because they make them uncomfortable in some way. It’s intolerance, or it’s fear. I love the way commenter adipocere over at MetaFilter put it:
I love the thought processes behind banned books. “I find this offensive; I want you to remove this from my reality and everyone else’s.” It’s at once passive and blustery. MY FEATHERS ARE ALL PUFFED OUT; DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
That said, though, it seems like the momentum for Banned Books Week isn’t there this year the way it’s been in past years. And I think, maybe that’s just me, I’ve been sick, I’ve been travelling, I’m tired — but then I see it reflected elsewhere on the web. On the one hand we have articles like this one from the Wall Street Journal: Finding Censorship Where There Is None. The author seems to be asserting that having books removed from libraries isn’t such a big deal ’cause people can just buy the books they want, easy peasy, and librarians are the ones who are afraid of discourse while the people who object to books are the ones whose freedom of speech/expression is being threatened.
Neil Gaiman responds to that some here, and points to a good rebuttal to the idea that Banned Books Week is no longer necessary here. In a nutshell, there’s this: people are literally threatening to burn books now, today, in 2009. That’s a problem that ought to be addressed, no?
On the other hand there are pieces like the blog post Jessamyn at librarian.net put up, and her commentary on the aforementioned MetaFilter thread. In the latter, she points out that the term “Banned Books Week” is misleading:
Haivng [sic] a book removed from a local or school library, while crappy, does not in any way equate with a governmental organization saying “no one should read this book; it’s not okay to read this book” I feel bad about this every year, but realistically speaking, they stuck with BBW because it’s a brand and it’s edgy/catchy, not because it’s accurate.
And then she gets into other problems with BBW:
This is actually a debated topic in the larger library community nearly every year when this comes up. BBW is a big deal in the library community but the culture has really changed so that the lion’s share of the books that have even been challenged are books in school libraries that parents feel aren’t age appropriate. Now, I still think that asking for a book to be removed from the library because you think no child of the age group of the school should be reading it isn’t cool, but it’s really different from saying “No one should read ____________ because it contains harmful ideas” which is what people are trying to sort of evoke when they talk about Tropic of Cancer and other books that were really more in the “forbidden/illegal” realm.
Usually what people are challenging is Harry Potter. Nearly every challenged book [that becomes public, i.e. where the librarian submitted the information about the challenge to the ALA] is not even removed from the library. These are books on hot button topics (witchcraft, gay penguins, slavery, teen pregnancy) that certain specific well-funded groups, in most cases, are trying to push the envelope on. I feel that it would be more useful to expose these groups who rile people up and get great media attention with these stunts and ask “what’s harmful about swearing?” “Why shouldn’t kids learn about drug use?” “Why do we think people learning about things is somehow the same as advocating that they do that?”
The whole thing is so blitely [sic] shallow. I think if we really want to make a point, we should be saying “intellectual freedom is good because ____________” and not just saying “OMG someone tried to ban Harry Potter, therefore they are bad, we are good and let’s all read in our wizard hats and celebrate our freedom to buy things!” For the most part, it’s a shopping holiday when it’s not being celebrated in libraries and even the ALA would like you to buy bookmarks and posters about it. I’d like to see some real research about reading habits and how what you read does or does not affect you and why limiting people’s access to information is BAD FOR SOCIETY and who, exactly, is trying to do this. We know these things. We have the data, but all we do is read 1984 to a bunch of nodding do-gooders and I don’t think that’s really solving the problem that is leading people to challenge books in the first place.
It’s hard not to agree with that. She gets at the heart of the matter a bit more succinctly in the post at librarian.net:
[I]f we want to get serious, I think we need to hit these points directly and ask people why they’re afraid of sex, or gay people (or penguins), or swearing. It’s nice to say that “free people read freely” but it’s another to be in a situation where your institutions are getting pressured by people who are intolerant and thinking that speaking truth to power is all you need to do.
That is something that’s very much worth thinking about.
In closing, Neil Gaiman also linked today to this blog post from July of 2008, in which a librarian responded to a patron’s objection to a picture book called Uncle Bobby’s Wedding. It’s an excellent and well-reasoned response, and it makes it clear to me that people who object to particular books shouldn’t be overly concerned that their freedom of speech/expression is being trampled on (unless that was, perhaps, not what they were truly concerned about in the first place…). Here is an excerpt from the conclusion:
Finally, then, I conclude that “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” is a children’s book, appropriately categorized and shelved in our children’s picture book area. I fully appreciate that you, and some of your friends, strongly disagree with its viewpoint. But if the library is doing its job, there are lots of books in our collection that people won’t agree with; there are certainly many that I object to. Library collections don’t imply endorsement; they imply access to the many different ideas of our culture, which is precisely our purpose in public life.
Have I mentioned recently how much I love libraries and reading and the First Amendment?