Why We Don’t Celebrate Banned Books Week.
Every September, the American Library Association (A.L.A.) celebrates Banned Books Week. Thousands of libraries and bookstores put up displays of banned books like Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, and Ulysses. Eureka Books never does.
This year’s list (permalink here) of the most frequently challenged books, compiled by the Office of Intellectual Freedom (the A.L.A. unit with the most Orwellian-sounding name), include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis, and A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard. The reason these books have been challenged are drugs, sex, and language. Homosexuality, racial slurs, and political viewpoint are other common reasons books are challenged. Challenges are mostly made by parents and community members concerned about books available in libraries and taught in schools.
Did you catch what I did?
I started out talking about “banned” books and then I switched to “challenged” books. Book banning is easy to oppose; challenges, a murky concept as described on the A.L.A. website, are less black and white.
It’s a common ploy, using banned and challenged interchangeably. Pay attention next time you read an article about Banned Books Week. Look at the A.L.A.’s website for the same bait-and-switch maneuver.
Even David Goldenberg, of the myth-busting FiveThirtyEight blog, did it with his recent post, We Tried—And Failed—to Find the Most Banned Book in America. [I attempt answer Goldenberg's question about the most banned books in America here.]
The reason Goldenberg failed was that the A.L.A. won’t show anyone the data used to compile the list. He finally settles on And Tango Makes Three as probably the most challenged book in America (note the switch, from banned to challenged!). Tango is a picture book about a true story of two male penguins who adopt a baby chick at a zoo. It’s challenged as a gay-lifestyle parable. Really, I’m not making that up.
But here’s the thing, despite being the “most challenged” book in America, Tango has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has been translated into many languages. This year, look for a 10th anniversary deluxe edition.
Wait a minute. A bestselling banned book? Isn’t that an oxymoron? How can a banned book sell so well?
Here’s how, and it’s the reason we don’t celebrate Banned Books Week at Eureka Books: The books are promoted and sold as “banned” books, and readers are encouraged to “celebrate the freedom to read” by buying and reading them. The clear subtext is to encourage a feeling of superiority (“I read banned books”) among those of us (me included) with liberal, left-leaning sensibilities.
But superior to whom? To conservative parents who don’t want their children exposed to four-letter words or to the real-life horrors Jaycee Dugard suffered during her 18 years of captivity.
You or I might disagree with those opinions, but I suspect few parents would object to a high school library turning down a donation of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Explicit S/M sex scenes probably aren’t appropriate for 14-year-olds.
So if we aren’t going to expose our children at publicly funded institutions to every kind of printed matter, then there have to be standards (spoken or unspoken) about what is and is not appropriate. Discussions and even disagreements about those standards are appropriate topics for parents, schools and libraries to engage in. [Amy Stewart, a co-owner of Eureka Books, weighs in with her perspective as a writer.]
While certain books do get challenged regularly, very few of them are actually banned at the local level. Even if a book is removed from one library or school, it’s not as if the book cannot be found nearby. After all, there are millions of copies of the 2014 top-challenged books in circulation.
I support freedom of expression, but I won’t use Banned Books Week to belittle the heart-felt concerns of people whose political and social values I don’t share. I don’t think they are right to try to remove most books from schools, and I am glad they almost always lose their battles (and they almost always lose).
Ironically, the people who challenge books may have the strongest belief in the printed word—books are so powerful to them that they have to fight against them. That sentiment, even if applied in a questionable way, always gives me encouragement in the day-to-day slog of keeping a bookstore alive and thriving.
NOTE: In all fairness, it’s entirely possible that a headline writer came up with the title of Mr. Goldenberg’s 538.com blog post, but it’s a perfect example of how “challenged” books get confused with “banned” books.