Banned Book Week

Posted by Jeff Markowitz on Tuesday, September 21, 2010
In honor of Banned Book Week (September 25 - October 1) I am updating and reposting this blog entry from 3/31/09 -  

The world may be moving in a digital direction, but it’s obvious that we’re not quite ready to give up the intimate relationship with our books.  Trulyepic summed it up nicely – “Curling up in the corner with a book in my hands, turning the pages and getting lost in the words - there is no other feeling like it.”  As an author, there are few things I love more than when readers send me photos curled up with one of my mysteries.


But that’s not what I want to talk about today.  Today I want to talk about banned books.  Fading roses19 commented, “Every time I re-read the perks of being a wallflower... I think about what I was feeling, was the main character how he feels etc.”  I wonder if she knows that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the most frequently challenged books, according to the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom.  (A challenge is defined as “a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.”)

In Books Challenged or Banned in 2009 -2010, Robert P. Doyle reminds us that "Sex, profanity and racism remain the primary categories of objections."  Here are just a few examples from Doyle's article.  

Baby Be-Bop by Francesca Lia Block
"Four Wisconsin men belonging to the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) sought $30,000 apiece for emotional distress they suffered from the West Bend, Wis. Community Memorial Library (2009) for displaying a copy of the book. The claim states that, 'specific words used in the book are derogatory and slanderous to all males' and 'the words can permeate violence and put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.' The CCLU called for the public burning of this title."

Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary
"Pulled from the Menifee, Calif. Union School District (2010) because a parent complained when a child came across the term “oral sex.” Officials said the district is forming a committee to consider a permanent classroom ban of the dictionary."

Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer
"Banned in Australia (2009) for primary school students because the series is too racy. Librarians have stripped the books from shelves in some junior schools because they believe the content is too sexual and goes against religious beliefs. They even have asked parents not to let kids bring their own copies of Stephenie Meyer’s smash hit school."

The American Library Association reminds us that intellectual freedom requires more than freedom of expression.  It also requires unrestricted access to that expression. 

“Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate; and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of the work, and the viewpoints of both the author and receiver of information. Freedom to express oneself through a chosen mode of communication, including the Internet, becomes virtually meaningless if access to that information is not protected. Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and that circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled.” (Intellectual Freedom Manual, ALA).

The most common rationale for banning books is the need to protect children, especially to protect children from offensive words or sexually explicit passages.  The American Library Association reminds us that “parents - and only parents - have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children.”  The ALA also reminds us that as parents we only have the right to make that decision for our own children, not to impose our decision on everybody else’s children.

But challenging books based on dirty words or sexual content is probably the least dangerous of such challenges.  The really dangerous efforts to restrict access to books are the efforts to ban books because of ideas.  In the last decade, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most frequently challenged book titles in the United States of America.  Huck Finn.  Still, after all these years.  The rationale for banning Huck Finn?  Racism.  And the most frequently challenged books from 2000 through 2009, the most dangerous books in America, have been the Harry Potter books.  The rationale for banning Harry Potter is that the books promote witchcraft.

It’s wonderful that we dedicate a week to the celebration of Banned Books.  But the sad truth is we need to dedicate every week to the twin principles of freedom of expression and the right to unrestricted access.

To the many librarians that I’ve had the privilege to meet at ALA meetings, at conferences and local book talks and on the internet, thank you.


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