Why Banned Books Week matters

It’s Banned Books Week again, and Amnesty International, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the American Library Association are among the groups noting the occasion. I’ve also updated the links on my ongoing exhibit Banned Books Online in preparation for this week, a time when the exhibit gets an especially large volume of visits.

Banned Books Week is really about two different, but related, things. The first of these, the focus of sites like Amnesty’s and the “Books Suppressed or Censored by Legal Authorities” section of my exhibit, deals with attempts to restrict who is allowed to speak about what matters to them. And in a lot of the world, the right to speak out is severely and violently repressed. The other day I added to my online books collection a number of titles from Human Rights Watch, which has many books, press releases, and other publications about grave threats to freedom of the press and freedom to protest in places like Burma, Chile, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Turkey, Venezuela, various Middle Eastern and African countries, former Soviet republics, and many other places around the world.

Americans enjoy a country with a much freer press than the countries above (and indeed, a freer press than we had in my grandparents’ day). We’re not perfect; our legal system does sometimes suppress legitimate expression, for a time at least, in the name of security, copyright, or “the children”. (And sometimes the threat of criminal violence can suppress books when the law does not.) It is worth remembering the important books that can be published thanks to the free press, and not to take them for granted.

But the banned books lists you’ll find in many libraries and bookstores (or in dubious chain emails) doesn’t focus much on the political samizdat, security exposés, or portrayals of Mohammed that are the objects of forcible suppression today. Instead, they’re often full of classics and popular titles sold widely in bookstores and online– or dominated by books written for young readers, or assigned for school reading. Some of the titles in these lists have been the targets of publication suppression at some point, but many (like those in the Harry Potter series) have not.

So is it wrong to call these books banned? Are lists like these just “shameless propaganda”, as some conservatives charge, or a hapless attempt to market classic literature to teens, as satirized in an Onion piece?

Not if you take readers seriously. An unread book, after all, has as little impact as an unpublished book. The bans that dominate the ALA lists are the obverse of publication bans: they’re attempts to restrict who is allowed to hear about what matters to them. True, their reach may be smaller than the government bans that can keep a book out of an entire state or country. And it may often be easier to circumvent these kinds of bans. (Particularly if you have a driver’s license, a credit card, and easy Internet access, things that adults often take for granted but that many kids lack.) But censorship at the reader’s end can be just as injurious as censorship at the writer’s end.

Librarians and teachers necessarily select certain books, and not others, for their collections and classes, and decide where they will best work. And it’s right for patrons of the schools and libraries to have some say in these selections (even if the professionals should generally be allowed to do their jobs). So simply counting “challenges” to a book isn’t very informative. But there’s a world of difference between saying “isn’t this more appropriate for the YA shelves than for the early readers section?” or “Would this title be a better fourth-grade book on this topic than the one currently being used?”, and insisting “None of our kids should be reading about this kind of thing!” when “this kind of thing” is already on the minds of those kids, or something that they should be thinking about. The “Unfit for Schools and Minors?” section of my Banned Books online exhibit describes some of the more dubious attempts to keep books out of the hands of young readers.

My oldest child is only 8, but he’s already coming up with new and challenging questions on an almost-daily basis. By the time kids reach double-digit ages (which is the young end of the audience for most of the controversial books) they have lots of questions about life, death, sexuality, unfairness, hatred, violence, drugs, and religion. They deserve the chance to explore answers to these questions in their reading and in their conversations.

In the process, they may encounter some ideas they’re not ready to deal with fully. (But encounters with text are often naturally self-regulated. When I was a young precocious reader, I’d usually skim over difficult parts or lose interest in a book that had them. More than once I’ve been surprised going back to a book as an adult and seeing what I’d missed as a kid.) Kids will also certainly encounter lots of dubious ideas and counsels. But mainstream culture is full of these as well, and I hope that I and other parents will teach our kids how to evaluate those wisely, whether or not they come from sources we usually think of as “controversial”.

Banned Books Week is thus about twin freedoms: the freedom to write about what matters to you, and the freedom to read about what matters to you. In this week’s observance, I hope we grow to better appreciate these freedoms and the power of books and ideas.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
This entry was posted in censorship, crimes and misdemeanors, libraries, online books, reading. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why Banned Books Week matters

  1. Andy Havens says:

    Library links to the 100 most challenged books from 1990-2000 (compiled by ALA): http://www.worldcat.org/profiles/andyhavens/lists/198220

  2. milagros says:

    No books are banned in Venezuela. Not sure where you got this idea. Venezuela has been a democracy since 1958, and has undergone a renewal of popular political participation under the current president, Hugo Chavez. Venezuela is not a country in which freedom of speech is not threatened.

  3. Emily Lloyd says:

    Thanks for this. I write a library web comic, Shelf Check, and am running strips on Banned Books Week all week. If interested, here’s the link to all comics tagged “banned books”: http://shelfcheck.blogspot.com/search/label/bannedbooks

  4. John Mark Ockerbloom says:

    I mention Venezuela in my post as one of the countries where there are “grave threats to freedom of the press and freedom to protest”. My source for this is the recent Human Rights Watch report “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela”.

    Readers who want to check this out for themselves may be particularly interested in the “Toughening Speech Offenses” section, describing the government’s expansion of “insult laws” that restrict the right to criticize public officials, and the “Regulating Media Content”, describing, among other things, license suspensions and threats to revoke licenses aimed against anti-Chavez broadcasters.

  5. Amanda Close says:

    In the spirit of freedom of speech, check out this article about digital books being restricted: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2008/12/books-go-digita.html

    The fact that books are going digital is old news but the fact that one of the 3 main distributors of digital literature [Apple] feels it is within their right to censor certain books is noteworthy. Should a company be able to select what the public should and should not read? This concerns me more than the fact that I might have to one day replace my mahogany bookcase with a digital one.

  6. John Mark Ockerbloom says:

    Thanks for writing, Amanda. If you do want to switch to digital books, I highly recommend using books that aren’t dependent on any particular proprietary technology or company to keep them readable (and read them on devices that likewise can display books in any open format).

    If, for instance, the book banned as an app in the Apple Store were available in a standard, non-proprietary format, it could be read by any number of programs and devices, including general-purpose ebook programs currently available on Apple’s devices.

    As far as I know, though, the publisher has only done electronic releases in proprietary, device-specific formats (such as Apple i* and Sony Reader). When that’s the case, the publisher puts themselves at the mercy of the gatekeepers for those formats (in the case you mention, Apple).

    Folks who want to preserve their freedom to read may want to support more open formats and devices for their reading. (For what it’s worth, nearly all the books available through The Online Books Page are in open formats, and a substantial number of commercially sold ebooks use open formats as well.)

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  8. Elena says:

    This article is great! You’re different approaches to why banned books week is importnat really got me thinking… Thanks.

    And by the way, Venezuela certainly is a country where freedom of speech is extremely threatened. I personally have some friends from there, who had to leave the country a few years back because their families did not “conform” to the authorities. And they are, today, still afraid of going back to their home country because of that.

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