Banned Book Week is a Crock...?
September 29, 2015 8:45 AM   Subscribe

Ruth Graham, in a Slate piece entitled, Banned Books Week is a Crock, argued that censorship is no longer a problem in the United States. Censorship laws are nearly extinct, and if your local library doesn't have the book...well, you can always find it online. "This Banned Books Week," writes Graham, "instead of hand-wringing about a nonexistent wave of censorship, let’s celebrate the obvious: The books won." But have they?

Michelle Anne Schingler responds on BookRiot: "'Better than before' seems to me an inadequate measuring stick when we’re discussing the availability of books, particularly in our schools and libraries...I want all readers and seekers to have the same access to books that I was privileged enough to have growing up: total."
posted by touchstone033 (94 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Certainly every single school student in America has equal access to computers with book-reading software, $80 month internet connections, and between $3 and $20 for each book they wish to buy online. Don't they? There can't be a single American child whose copy of "In the Night Kitchen" has been banned from their grade school library who is excluded from this, could there?
posted by maxsparber at 8:49 AM on September 29, 2015 [94 favorites]


How often has Reason in Common Sense been banned, I wonder.
posted by Etrigan at 8:51 AM on September 29, 2015


Aside from the inflammatory Slate headline (Everything good is bad! Everyone is wrong about the Thing!), the piece actually makes a good point. Not so much about Banned Books Week, as the idea that there is no tidal wave of book banning the way there was in the past, in part because of things like Banned Books Week and in part because of changes to how people read.

So, we should keep doing Banned Books Week, but it is nice to acknowledge that censorship of books seems to be less of a problem now, perhaps, than it was in the 1980s when Banned Books Weeks started.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:53 AM on September 29, 2015 [13 favorites]


Talk about status objects (see thread below) -- an I READ BANNED BOOKS tote bag is sure one of them. It says a lot, most of it good but not quite all.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:58 AM on September 29, 2015


I don't think it hurts us one bit to remember that censorship happened and can happen again.
posted by tunewell at 8:58 AM on September 29, 2015 [36 favorites]


Is there any topic that could possibly be *more* likely to start a flame war on MeFi?
posted by gusandrews at 8:58 AM on September 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


True, maxsparber, but kids WILL find a way to see what they want to see. I know I did. A few years ago the Boston Globe made a big deal about censoring one of their Doonesbury comics, and my first thought was "who reads the comics in a newspaper these days?"

On preview: tunewell, YES.
posted by Melismata at 8:59 AM on September 29, 2015


I'd like to hear jessamyn's analysis on this one, for sure.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:59 AM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


What the Slate article is ignoring is that we have a relatively better situation because good people are making the effort to keep it that way.
This is not an accident, and it doesn't happen without efforts to keep things available--efforts like Banned Book Week.
Speaking as someone who participates to a degree in these efforts, and deals with banning attempts, I think without the hard work of a lot of people, this article wouldn't be able to be so dismissive and oblivious.
posted by librosegretti at 9:00 AM on September 29, 2015 [60 favorites]


Yeah, I'm reminded of Ruth Bader Ginberg's quote about the Voting Rights Act (which is one of my most favorited comments on MetaFilter), but I'll paraphrase it here:

Throwing out [Banned Book Week] when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop [banning books] is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

(Not that she's necessarily making an active call to ban Banned Book Week, but that's the problem with inflammatory headlines -- they inflame the response too.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:01 AM on September 29, 2015 [36 favorites]


Memo to Slate: The #slatepitch tag for absurd contrarianism isn't a compliment.
posted by Gelatin at 9:02 AM on September 29, 2015 [18 favorites]


True, maxsparber, but kids WILL find a way to see what they want to see.

They have to know something exists to track it down. The insisdious thing about censorship is not that it makes something unavailable, but that, if done well, people don't even know it is unavailable.

I mean, I think every child should read Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book, but if they don't even know it exists, how are they to learn of it?
posted by maxsparber at 9:04 AM on September 29, 2015 [21 favorites]


Yeah, no. The idea that Banned Book Week no longer serves a purpose is kind of hard to swallow when people are pushing to get The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks banned from their child's entire school district because they think it's pornography. I don't care that challenges like that are usually shut down in time, it's the fact that there are challenges like this all the time. (See also: The Anoka-Hennepin School District ban of Eleanor & Park, which they tried to extend to the public library system as well, and which resulted in cancellations of author appearances in the area.)
posted by palomar at 9:07 AM on September 29, 2015 [29 favorites]


(also please note that in the Anoka-Hennepin situation, the book was part of a voluntary summer reading program. no one's being required to read anything, just like the Fun Home stupidity at Duke, but certain conservatives sure do love to freak out and impose their prudish morality on everyone around them at the drop of a hat.)
posted by palomar at 9:09 AM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Censorship has evolved.
posted by Naberius at 9:11 AM on September 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've been a librarian for 10 years, and in a position to remove books from the collection for 8. I have received probably about 50 "requests for reconsideration" - most of them for DVDs that the requestor considered sexually explicit (mainly the HBO trifecta of Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, and Deadwood).

I've only ever removed one item from the library based on a request for reconsideration. It was an older children's book about religion that had some rather cringe-worthy illustrations of the prophet Muhammad, amongst others. I thought about it and said to myself, "You know...we can do better than this." So I withdrew the book and found another, newer, less cringe-worthy book to fill that spot in the collection. I'd say that 90% of my decisions to remove a book from the collection have been because I thought "You know...we can do better than this." The other 10% of books were removed due to condition or damage.

You have now had a peek into one Public Librarian's exciting world of removing books from the collection.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:11 AM on September 29, 2015 [90 favorites]


Yeah, this seems more like a case of "I don't hear about it so it must no longer be a problem" type of deal.
posted by I-baLL at 9:11 AM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was kind of baffled by the Slate piece. Banned Books Week seems to define "banning" as any effort to restrict the availability of books, such as this effort to ban books by a noted pickup artist and men's rights activist. Efforts to stop the sale of books like that seem to be on the rise, and this is not really acknowledged in the Slate piece.

Books discussed in connection with Banned Books Week (like in this Slate piece) almost always seem to be books that every reasonable person agrees are okay, like Huckleberry Finn, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Slaughterhouse Five.

So, is there an ideological criterion for the books that ALA defends? Or do they genuinely have a content-neutral philosophy where they defend the availability of all books?
posted by jayder at 9:11 AM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


"this effort to get Amazon to stop selling books by a noted pickup artist and men's rights activist."

Rapist. RooshV is a self-confessed rapist.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:17 AM on September 29, 2015 [22 favorites]


Is there any topic that could possibly be *more* likely to start a flame war on MeFi?

Which are better, Chicago banned books or New York City banned books?
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:17 AM on September 29, 2015 [18 favorites]


Yes, things do get a little interesting when we talk about defending Roosh V's Bang Guides. I'm not sure I can agree that asking Amazon not to sell those is tantamount to a ban... the material is still available elsewhere, and it's not a crime to own it...
posted by palomar at 9:18 AM on September 29, 2015


No, asking a private institution like a book seller to not sell rape manuals from an admitted rapist is not the same as government-run facilities banning books because girls talk about their periods. How the fuck did you think those two things were even remotely similar?
posted by zombieflanders at 9:19 AM on September 29, 2015 [48 favorites]


wow, has amazon already been nationalized? someone give sanders a high five for me
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:19 AM on September 29, 2015 [24 favorites]


Memo to Slate: The #slatepitch tag for absurd contrarianism isn't a compliment.

Speak for yourself. Do you also complain the stories in The Onion aren't true?
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 9:19 AM on September 29, 2015


I think that the ALA defines "banning" as any attempt to restrict the availability of books, including pressuring bookstores. Am I wrong?
posted by jayder at 9:21 AM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Am I wrong?

Yes, do you not understand what the "L" in ALA stands for?
posted by zombieflanders at 9:24 AM on September 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


This, from the ALA website, doesn't seem to restrict the meaning of Banned Books Week to library availability:

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

That's why I'm puzzled by the Slate article. Nobody anymore really challenges stuff like Huckleberry Finn without being laughed at. However, there ARE unpopular ideas that people try to restrict the availability of, so if their philosophy genuinely is content-neutral and they really have an absolutist view of "freedom to read," then the Slate article is wrong, and the ALA is right (at least by their own absolutist philosophy).

I feel like people are getting their hackles up about this, and I don't know why.
posted by jayder at 9:27 AM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Jayder, if you want, you can report the book challenged using the form on the ALA's website. They seem interested in challenges to booksellers as well.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 9:27 AM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've been a librarian for 10 years, and in a position to remove books from the collection for 8.

I know what you mean by this, but I prefer to imagine that this position is something you earn by, like Thor's Mjolnir, being determined worthy to lift the banhammer.

(Basically, I think libraries are magic until proven otherwise.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:27 AM on September 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


I think that the ALA defines "banning" as any attempt to restrict the availability of books, including pressuring bookstores. Am I wrong?
Definitions to Clarify Terminology Associated with Challenges

In 1986, in response to inquiries from librarians facing book or material challenges for the first time, the Intellectual Freedom Committee developed the following list of definitions to clarify terminology associated with challenges:
Expression of Concern. An inquiry that has judgmental overtones.
Oral Complaint. An oral challenge to the presence and/or appropriateness of the material in question.
Written Complaint. A formal, written complaint filed with the institution (library, school, etc.), challenging the presence and/or appropriateness of specific material.
Public Attack. A publicly disseminated statement challenging the value of the material, presented to the media and/or others outside the institutional organization in order to gain public support for further action.
Censorship. A change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.
For more information and resources on challenges to library materials, please see challenge support, essential preparation, and reporting a challenge.

The Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged books list is compiled with expert analysis by the Office for Intellectual Freedom staff. “Challenges” are documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries. Removal would restrict access to this information by other library users. This list is not scientifically compiled. Rather, it is a snapshot of the reports we receive every day. In some cases we get numerous details about the challenger, the nature of the complaint, the backstory, and the current status of the book. And in some cases we get very little. Sometimes we receive information during the challenge event, sometimes many years later. These factors affect the total number of challenged books for any given year and how we inform the public.

Our goal is not to focus on the numbers, but to educate the community that censorship is still a very serious problem. Even with all of our efforts to follow up and provide support, surveys indicate that up to 85% of book challenges receive no media attention and remain unreported.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:28 AM on September 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


I know what you mean by this, but I prefer to imagine that this position is something you earn by, like Thor's Mjolnir, being determined worthy to lift the banhammer.

It's more like a cage match, where the winner gets to stand triumphant over the broken form of the previous librarian and scream WHO RULES DEACCESSION TOWN?!?
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:30 AM on September 29, 2015 [14 favorites]


“Challenges” are documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries.

And yet their statistics show several hundred challenges associated with commercial businesses.
posted by zabuni at 9:31 AM on September 29, 2015


Which are better, Chicago banned books or New York City banned books?

tbh I've always found the plots of NYC banned books to be a little thin for my tastes.
posted by phunniemee at 9:31 AM on September 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


No, asking a private institution like a book seller to not sell rape manuals from an admitted rapist is not the same as government-run facilities banning books because girls talk about their periods. How the fuck did you think those two things were even remotely similar?

I mean I haven't read this Roosh guy's stuff, but by all accounts he's an asshole and his writings objectionable. But that's just me. Just as I object to the designation of the Lacks book as pornography, there is clearly an audience out there for his works and I expect they would object to its designation as a rape manual - no matter how spun up you may be about it.

It seems kind of disingenuous to me to argue that one is not trying to censor someone else's speech because one is doing so in the private sphere instead of in schools and public libraries. Especially when the argument is being made that official "censorship" of public schools, libraries, etc. doesn't really matter anymore because Amazon and because Internet. Whether you call it censorship or not, it still amounts to trying to silence voices you find disagreeable and make it difficult or impossible for people to access that material. If they do so through public institutions, the strategy would be to call for removal from the library. If they do so through private ones, the strategy would be to pressure Amazon et al to remove them from their sites. It's the same result.
posted by Naberius at 9:31 AM on September 29, 2015 [12 favorites]


It's more like a cage match, where the winner gets to stand triumphant over the broken form of the previous librarian and scream WHO RULES DEACCESSION TOWN?!?

Librarians, really ... Can't we get beyond Thunderdome?
posted by maxsparber at 9:31 AM on September 29, 2015 [4 favorites]




> Is there any topic that could possibly be *more* likely to start a flame war on MeFi?

"If you could only ban one book, would it be Adopt Hitler's Big Book of Favorite Jokes and Riddles Or The Complete Guide to Declawing Kittens For Fun and Profit?"
posted by ardgedee at 9:33 AM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can't believe Slate published this but refuses to run my article, 4th of July: Fireworks, Hot Dogs and Unreasonable Paranoia of the Return of British Rule.
posted by mullacc at 9:34 AM on September 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


~Is there any topic that could possibly be *more* likely to start a flame war on MeFi?
~Which are better, Chicago banned books or New York City banned books?


I only ban books from small letter-presses and artisanal binderies.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:35 AM on September 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


There's hardly anyone left to ban books in the first place, nor places to ban them from, and what infrastructure does still exist is so underfunded that actual, full-on bans could be happening all the time, easily disgused as, "Sorry, we can't afford to get that in," rather than the splashy "THIS BOOK R BAND - BONFIRE AT 8 - BYO STEAMROLLER" announcement of yore.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:35 AM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Like many unfair things, banning of books is an asymmetric issue. Stating the obvious of some variation of how modernism treats censorship like damage and routes around it is a really an attempt to reframe censorship as a primarily a problem of access.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Just like our access to works has changed, so has the intent and mechanism of censorship. No censor thinks that banning a work will erase it from the population's memory, except maybe in Myanmar or North Korea. Even then, I'm not so sure.

The intent is to create a philosophical walled garden as a statement. It creates an asymmetrical situation where those within the garden get special, constricted views that reinforce existing modes of reasoning and experience. With little indication that the garden exists beyond some fuzzy notion of right and correct and healthy.

Banning a book from a school or a public library has the effect and intent of restricting those for whom it is not too late to keep in the garden. By implication, if you are able to route around their Do Not Cross tape you are part of the problem of the filthy outside which by mere association you diminish the clean.

It is a rhetorical line in the sand, meant to be scuffed so they can redraw it and know who is on the site of right.

It is not enough that a smart person can find banned (and, usually, copyrighted -- the implications of this only add to my argument) material outside of a community source like a school or library.

Because it specifically targets those who are not aware of this constraint on their perception. They may be unaware of the walled garden they are in. You can't miss anything you didn't know was there.

So, reporting on banned books is important because it puts red circles around holes to show everyone, equally, what parts are missing.

I'll finish with an appeal to those who would argue the false argument of false dichotomy. It is a truism that all cultures censor. We don't allow certain things and we always have.

Pointing out the holes is also something that angers many so called moderates who would normally be unsupportive of classic censorship. Banning a book is one thing, but silencing or ignoring material that points out problems with, for example, globalism or environmental degradation is often a way of not letting all of us see the holes that exist in out own comfortable manner of living.

So, there's censorship, there's censorship, and there's censorship.

When considering these, it maybe more helpful to consider who is harmed most by making a thing into a hole.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:36 AM on September 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


there is clearly an audience out there for his works and I expect they would object to its designation as a rape manual - no matter how spun up you may be about it

He literally tells readers how to overcome consent issues and describes non-consensual sex (CW:sexual assault) in his books.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:39 AM on September 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. I'm trying to give as much latitude as possible but if this discussion gets into the details of the Roosh books and fills up with recaps of the horrible stuff he says, there's no way to continue. So discuss censorship, fine, but leave off the "oh but is it strictly speaking a rape manual" side debate.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:41 AM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've been a librarian for 10 years, and in a position to remove books from the collection for 8.

I know what you mean by this, but I prefer to imagine that this position is something you earn by, like Thor's Mjolnir, being determined worthy to lift the banhammer.

(Basically, I think libraries are magic until proven otherwise.)


Ages ago, I worked as a student employee at the National Library of Medicine, processing donations from other libraries. Part of my job was determining if the NLM already have enough copies of an item and if it does then I have the power to toss it in the don't-keep pile. I could've precluded so many things from being inserted into the collection.

Some days that little bit of power made that job so worth it.
posted by numaner at 9:42 AM on September 29, 2015


I know what you mean by this, but I prefer to imagine that this position is something you earn by, like Thor's Mjolnir, being determined worthy to lift the banhammer.

I've given many a drunkard the bums rush, taken on 30 screaming children at once, dealt with all manner of human-produced biohazard materials, supervised undergraduate student workers who had never held a job, and defended the library against small town blowhard politicians who would rather spend the library budget on upgrading the golf course.

I am worthy. Rawwwrrr!
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:42 AM on September 29, 2015 [35 favorites]


I feel like people are getting their hackles up about this, and I don't know why.

I've never liked Banned Books Week because the rhetoric it uses is so overheated that it's just plain wrong. We live in a world where there are books that are actually, for real, banned -- where possession or publication of the book is punishable. That's banned. We live in a country where books were, for real, banned.

But the ALA uses "banned" to mean "any book that anyone has ever objected to in any way," but that's just not what "banned" means. It just isn't, and it's factually incorrect (or terribly incompetent English) to use it that way. It's like calling dogs "cats" or hamburgers "watermelons."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:47 AM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


If the censors have been truly frustrated, they can at least take solace in the increasing amount of tracking data available for just about all media purchases and book borrowing.
posted by klarck at 9:52 AM on September 29, 2015


I am worthy. Rawwwrrr!

i am the grimmest of executioners the grey faced man with ink stained fingers i purse my lips and say no room no room
i wipe my finger down a list of circulation stats
i find your favorite book
i tut tut at the low number next to it
no room no room on the shelf
but
there is always room on the discard pile
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:53 AM on September 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


But the ALA uses "banned" to mean "any book that anyone has ever objected to in any way,"

Nope. From their website:
What is the difference between a challenge or banning?

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:54 AM on September 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've never liked Banned Books Week because the rhetoric it uses is so overheated that it's just plain wrong.

What rhetoric in this context would be legit, then? "These Are the Books That a Few Angry People Have Gotten Shouty and Handwavey About Week"?

Not got the same ring, has it?
posted by blucevalo at 9:58 AM on September 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't think the Real Meaning of Banned Books Week is that there is a huge tide of censorship (although there is some).

The Real Meaning of Banned Books Week is, it's a way for librarians to celebrate and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, and I think that's great. They keep the flame burning now so it can help us in darker times.
posted by grobstein at 10:01 AM on September 29, 2015 [26 favorites]


I think book banning is still a problem if you don't limit it to libraries.

Poking through the Banned Books and Challenges Map, in Tucson, AZ, (citing this from a quote within the map, could not find the original NYT editorial describing this): In a district with over sixty percent of the students coming from Mexican-American backgrounds,... the school board “dismantled its Mexican-American Studies program, packed away its offending books, shuttled its students into other classes.”.... In this case, it was not one book that was withheld, it was several, per the Huf article here. It appears the decision was reversed and the books can now be used in classrooms (as of 2013), but those books were no longer permitted for classroom use within the last few years and permission to use them again barely passed (school board voted 3 to 2).
posted by Wolfster at 10:04 AM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Be 100% less worried about BANNED BOOKS!!1 than librarian who says, "Oh, I won't buy that, we don't have 'those kinds' of patrons." - @misskubelik on Twitter.
I do think that there's a problem with libraries being self-congratulatory about banned books when the possibly the biggest enemy of having diverse viewpoints in libraries is the pressure to only buy things that can justify their value in terms of circulation statistics. It's not a conscious effort to restrict controversial points of view - often it's the opposite - but as publishing gets more corporate and winner-take-all, as library ordering shifts away from librarians toward distributors who assemble packages of new books, as we get technology that makes it easier to automate weeding... if you can't distinguish a library collection from what gets sold at Barnes & Noble, it's inevitable that a lot is going to get left out. It's not because it's too controversial, it's because "They won't check out this kind of book here," or because the selector never saw it in the first place. And ideally Banned Books Week should be a time for looking at that and reflecting on that, but too often people just get smug that they have Huckleberry Finn on the shelves.
posted by Jeanne at 10:05 AM on September 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


"But even if you’re firmly opposed to 'banning books'—and I am!—it’s hard to argue that parents should have no right to weigh in on what their children read at school."

I love the way this piece adheres to the usual Slate contrarian formula. Wait, sorry, sorry, actually, let me rephrase. Even if you're firmly opposed to the way this piece is written -- and I am! -- I love the way it hits all the Slate "let's chase this straw man around in circles even though no one in their right mind is arguing this" checkboxes so perfectly.
posted by blucevalo at 10:05 AM on September 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


I started re-reading The Handmaid's Tale yesterday as part of the Banned Books Week festivities. It never struck me before, but it's a bit odd that I read it first as pre-adolescent and now as post-menopausal.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:07 AM on September 29, 2015 [10 favorites]


When you're reading a Slate article it helps to periodically close your eyes and imagine the writer as a prehistoric cartoon bird, turning to the camera and sighing, "it's a living."
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:09 AM on September 29, 2015 [29 favorites]


How the fuck did you think those two things were even remotely similar?

Well - the line blurs when Amazon starts to introduce things like Kindle Unlimited, which in some ways is more of a library-reading-experience...

...but you still have to pay to view content that you find objectionable - so, don't do that...

IMO censorship requests to - and behaviour by private companies like Amazon should only become an issue when some government decides to outsource public-library eBook services to them... Which is probably only a matter of time...
posted by jkaczor at 10:22 AM on September 29, 2015


I do think that there's a problem with libraries being self-congratulatory about banned books when the possibly the biggest enemy of having diverse viewpoints in libraries is the pressure to only buy things that can justify their value in terms of circulation statistics.

I agree with this.

I find Banned Books Week rather unteresting when it's just celebrating their defense of literary classics that some ignoramuses in small-town Alabama for some reason took umbrage at. Because that's a no-brainer.

I find Banned Books Week interesting when it's defending books that are genuinely subversive, disturbing, upsetting, revolutionary, ahead of their times, way behind the times, or just plain crazy or awful. Because that's actually courageous and risky.

The displays I see in libraries and bookstores are always made up of the former type of books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse 5, etc.

Never do I see them including books like To Train Up A Child, which has been implicated in multiple deaths of children, or The Turner Diaries, which inspired Timothy McVeigh to commit the Oklahoma City bombing.

Perhaps these books rarely are subject to a challenge because they are not stocked by libraries and bookstores so there's no occasion for a challenge? But seriously, the whole concept of Banned Books Week is pretty toothless if it's only going to focus on their defense of books that every reasonable person agrees shouldn't be banned.
posted by jayder at 10:24 AM on September 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


When I was in Librarian College we talked about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The position I took was that inclusion of the book, which is both vile and of significance, was that the shelving of the book was of significance. Including the book would be inappropriate if it were cataloged as a work about Judaism but less so if it were cataloged under the hypothetical headings of Racism or Conspiracy Theories. The latter makes sense. It's a primary source and worthy of being studied as such. I don't have a problem with the works you mention on the same grounds.

This, of course, is dependent on the conspectus of the library in question. If it's a research library, yes. If it's a tiny little branch that's primarily serving small children and their parents, less so.

But whatever. I've never worked in a library and my current job is about as far from a librarian as you can get so, you know, don't give my opinions too much credence.
posted by stet at 10:40 AM on September 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


Librarians, can I file an inter-library loan at a library to request a banned book from a different library where it's not banned?
posted by crysflame at 10:58 AM on September 29, 2015


Censorship has evolved.

This has been a reoccurring issue with Apple - to the point that they have a specific rule in their guidelines that states that their normal policies with regard to app censorship are to be ignored if the app is created by a noted satirist (read: someone who can embarrass Apple publicly.)

I call this policy the Fiore Rule, in honor of the political cartoonist who made it necessary.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:02 AM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've only ever removed one item from the library based on a request for reconsideration. It was an older children's book about religion that had some rather cringe-worthy illustrations of the prophet Muhammad, amongst others. I thought about it and said to myself, "You know...we can do better than this." So I withdrew the book and found another, newer, less cringe-worthy book to fill that spot in the collection. I'd say that 90% of my decisions to remove a book from the collection have been because I thought "You know...we can do better than this."

But this is the same argument used by everyone who wants to de-access stuff, whether it's Uncle Remus or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Difference is, a librarian has the privilege of making such decisions on the quiet and without much, if any, public attention, while the Concerned Public types are of necessity more likely to get vocal and risk the scrutiny of a skeptical press.

(As a follow-up, I'd be curious to know what books you removed and what you replaced them with, since part of my interest is in changing perceptions and attitudes over time.)
posted by IndigoJones at 11:29 AM on September 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


But seriously, the whole concept of Banned Books Week is pretty toothless if it's only going to focus on their defense of books that every reasonable person agrees shouldn't be banned.

I guess who cares?
posted by Greg Nog at 11:46 AM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


But seriously, the whole concept of Banned Books Week is pretty toothless if it's only going to focus on their defense of books that every reasonable person agrees shouldn't be banned.

The disconnect I'm feeling here is that it seems quite abundantly obvious that The People Who Control Access to Books for Children & Students is not a perfect subset of Every Reasonable Person.
posted by psoas at 11:47 AM on September 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


During my five years on the school board we had two challenges from parents who wanted books banned. One was "The Blood-Hungry Spleen" which the parent presented as having pornographic poetry about boy-parts and girl-parts, and also a poem about pooping. I laughed and I was like, "I own that book, I read that book to my toddlers, it's hilarious and it's won a bunch of awards." Although TO BE FAIR it does have poems about boy parts and girl parts, and one called "Consider the Anus." ("The anus is the exit / for the waste your body makes, / a thankless job / (but someone has to do it). / Your anus is reliable / and rarely makes mistakes. / It loves its job / (though most of us poo-poo it).") In the end they moved the book out of the kindergarten classroom it was in, and in to the school library poetry section, so kids would have to actively seek it out instead of running across it.

The other was Iggy's House by Judy Blume, which the parent complained was "supporting racism" to which I responded, "Are you fucking kidding me?" It's a famous 1970 novel about the end of redlining and the integration of formerly all-white suburbs and how the black and white children, who become friends, fight the racism of their older neighbors and confront their old-fashioned beliefs. (It was not part of the curriculum, but a book her high-achieving daughter chose from the school library for extended reading after her teacher recommended Judy Blume as an author she would enjoy.) Basically the parent read the first two pages and decided she wanted to pick a fight about something with the school district and be on TV, and didn't realize she was picking a famous piece of juvenile fiction. To which the Board's response was "ha ha, no."

So, yeah, you don't see much "banning" of books anymore, but I think Banned Book week is a valuable way to get kids and teenagers in particular thinking about the value of free reading, and thinking and talking about WHY certain books are frequently challenged and why some adults might not want them reading them. Sure, you and I can scoff at the ignoramus who wants "Huck Finn" pulled from the American Lit curriculum, but the point here is really to say to a 14-year-old, "Someone wants to remove this book from the curriculum because of the n-word, what do you think?" and hear the 14-year-old weigh the use of the word in context and whether the book's helpful or harmful to her and her classmates. The only way you get adults who can make nuanced value judgments about why even though the n-word is bad it might be important to read a novel with the n-word in it is by helping kids start thinking through and making those arguments themselves, and having them articulate why understanding the historical context of the novel, and the word itself, is really important for understanding American history and literature.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:48 AM on September 29, 2015 [27 favorites]


As a follow-up, I'd be curious to know what books you removed and what you replaced them with, since part of my interest is in changing perceptions and attitudes over time.

Well, I don't know a lot about Muslim history...but I know that pictures of Muhammad are frowned upon to say the least. That is actually why the book was brought to my attention. There were other pictures that could be considered problematic as well (Asian deities with exaggerated facial features etc) as well. The book was older - maybe mid 70's? - so it was also kind of dusty and not very attractive looking to today's kids.

This happened about 5 years ago in a small, rural library. We didn't have a wide selection of "Religions of the World" books for children. This one was geared towards upper elementary grade level (around ages 9-12, grades 4-6); and a quick look at other libraries selections on the topic showed me that there were others out there to choose from. So I went to Ingram Books and found a Religions of the World book for that age group that had received good reviews from review mags I respect - things like Library Journal, School Library Journal, etc. I bought it, when it came in I looked at it, added it to the catalog and put it on the shelf. Voila!

I will point out that yes, the librarian has the privilege of making such decisions on the quiet. That's because usually the librarian has the education and experience to make such decisions in an objective and thoughtful way. Of course there are exceptions - I worked with a dimwit librarian who thought we didn't need any books on Islam because "no Muslims live here anyway" - but for the most part, Librarians take selection and deselection seriously. I wish people knew that. There's more to being a Librarian than kicking out the drunk folks and reading all day at the desk!
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:53 AM on September 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


I just did a quick search through articles about banning books in other parts of the world, and in an odd way, Amazon can contribute to it if it is part of an entire movement within a country.

As an example, "Into the River" about a Maori boy sent to an elite school was banned in New Zealand. But the interesting aspects is that until the the board of review decides, it not accessible to other people in New Zealand. This includes libraries, book sellers, and Amazon. According to the article if you try to access it through Amazon in country, even on the kindle, the message returned is "This title is not currently available for purchase"

Something else intriguing per that article and a few others is that there are restriction on access to books by age with ratings or R14 and R18 ...I couldn't find much more about it without going into a deep rabbit hole, but it sounds like there are books that a 14 year old or an 18 year old cannot even purchase without proof of age.

I hate wikipedia as a reference, but it did list books banned throughout various parts of the world and reasons...the list was intriguing if anyone else is interested.
posted by Wolfster at 11:53 AM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


In my author debut group, there were about 30 YA authors all being published for the first time in 2009. Two of us were officially challenged. It wasn't just one random malcontent complaining about their books. There was national news coverage of a protracted controversy, during which both authors got streams of support, but also streams of hate mail and threats. They were publicly called pedophiles and pornographers.

Their books were not targeted because they were on required reading lists. In one case, the book was challenged simply for existing in the high school library. (As of this writing, five years later, that book is technically in the high school library, but students have to have permission to check it out-- along with one of Kurt Vonnegut's books, which was challenged at the same time.) The librarian who responded to the challenge was subsequently forced to resign her position at the school.

In the other case, I believe the book was on a suggested summer reading list. It wasn't required, it was just a list of newer YA books that teens could find at the local library. The challenge ensued and while these books stayed in the library, without special permission required to read them, the school district opted to get rid of the suggested reading list entirely.

Those are the official challenges. 2 out of 30, not so bad. But at least 17 of us have been (variously) disinvited from school or library (that is, we were invited until the invite was suddenly rescinded at the objection of a parent,) our books been removed from panels at conferences after initial invitation, we've had teachers request school visits, but specifically request that specific book content would be forbidden to discuss, and had book fairs either a) specifically request altering our text to include or or b) specifically decline our books due to content.

All of this happens, on top of librarians telling us-- privately-- that they championed our books for their collections, but the selectors decided they weren't worth the risk. When books are challenged, teachers and librarians literally put their jobs on the line to defend those books. I certainly can't blame someone for deciding that their livelihood is more important to them than my novel on their shelves.

Challenged books and books that are challengeable continues to be a major free speech issue. Just because it may seem quaint to some, this continues to be a real issue, especially in smaller communities. I know a librarian who had to figure out a way to sneak queer books for teens onto the shelves. The library administration didn't object to queer fiction per se, but they worried it would "become an issue" with their readers. The librarian eventually started putting together "Award Winning" end caps. And it just so happened that she chose all Lambda Literary and YALSA Stonewall Award Winners.

Publishers take into account whether they think a book is worth the possible legal ramifications of its text. The two authors that I discussed above? Their publishers spent an extraordinary amount of money fighting the challenge. Most publishers do put forth that effort once it happens. But they certainly consider on their profit and loss sheet at acquisitions whether they think a particular book would be worthy of it, if it happened. A lot of times, the answer is no.

There are books that are never allowed to exist because they might be challenged. With distressing regularity, the voices that get lost as those that most need amplification. Fiction by authors of color, urban fiction, queer fiction, female-focused fiction-- and as we're seeing with the challenge on The Strange Second Life of Henrietta Lacks, it's also an attack on factual, scientific non-fiction. I'm horrified at the thought of an acquisition team deciding it's not worth it to publish books about evolution, vaccines, the origin of the universe, women's health, the Tuskegee experiments, and on and on.

This is why Banned Books Week is important. This entire system is made out of people. Authors get scared, librarians get scared, publishers get scared-- it reminds us of why we fight-- it reminds me that for every crackpot who gave me a hard time about the gay kid in my book in 2009, that I've met two queer kids who took hope and strength from it.

And it reminds everyone else that there is a fight, that it's a worthy battle, and it's one that is constantly waged. Without everyone else, without the parents who do want their kids to read about Henrietta Lacks, and the communities that step up to say it's unacceptable to let one person decide what the whole city reads, without the readers who just want that book to be there when they need it or when someone else does-- without those people, then our voices disappear.

That's why we still have Banned Books week. That's why I hope we always do.
posted by headspace at 11:54 AM on September 29, 2015 [84 favorites]


Metafilter: There's more to being a Librarian than kicking out the drunk folks and reading all day at the desk!
posted by Melismata at 11:54 AM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


BTW, I want to add that I know The Blood-Hungry Spleen is not every parent's cup-of-tea and I think it's appropriate it be in the library but possibly not the kind of thing you want out on the shelf in a kindergarten classroom in a diverse community with many different attitudes towards body issues. In our house we're all about correct anatomical words for things and so the Blood-Hungry Spleen is fine; in some of our kids' friends' houses, whom I still consider body-positive and sex-positive, they aren't quite so explicit with language and would strenuously dislike the book for such young children.

Which is the sort of interesting conversation to have around Banned Books week and specific books. :) How much non-parentally-mediated access 5-year-olds should have to explicit poetry about pooping is a good question to discuss!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:00 PM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]




That's why we still have Banned Books week. That's why I hope we always do.

Flagged as fantastic. Thanks headspace.

The fact that librarians decide not to add potentially important books to their collections shows that censorship is very much alive in this country. The idea that publishers might take this into account before publishing is even more chilling.
posted by el io at 12:28 PM on September 29, 2015


I am a lot more sympathetic to the Slate article than most here, though I found (as usual with Slate) that the author's arguments ended up being too shallow.

I stopped reading the "banned books" articles a long time ago. They rarely seemed to offer an honest assessment of the state of censorship in the USA. Rather, it seemed they needed a list of ten books, or ten books in every genre, and every year they would find ten - and there was rarely any way to differentiate between the troubling issues (Chicago schools removing Persepolis from the shelves) and the silly ones (one person in Tennessee confuses menstruation with pornography). All that seemed to matter was a click-bait headline: CENSORSHIP IN THE USA!

I also agree with most posters above that "banned book week" is still an important public campaign to have. I just wish it had better execution.
posted by kanewai at 12:29 PM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


The disconnect I'm feeling here is that it seems quite abundantly obvious that The People Who Control Access to Books for Children & Students is not a perfect subset of Every Reasonable Person.

I went to a very small school in the very conservative south. There was some book we were reading in 6th grade (I can't be certain but I have a vague thought that it might have been The Cat Ate My Gym Suit) that my middle school grammar teacher liked to use as an object lesson in dangerous reading material.

Evidently back in the early 90s one of her students came up to her a few days after the book was assigned and said "I found a curse word in this book and my mom says I'm not allowed to read it." "A curse word!" exclaimed my very southern very social-niceties-conscious teacher who had of course screened it prior to assigning it to children. "Yes, right here!" and the student opened the book and pointed at the middle of the page. "Where?" "Right there!!" "What word??" The student, now exasperated, "well, right there!" pointing again, "bra!"

At this my grammar teacher reportedly burst out laughing and explained to her that bra wasn't a curse word and that she'd have a nice little chat with her mom that night about what's appropriate and how it might be a good idea not to scandalize something her puberty-age daughter was going to have as a life reality in short order. After a long phone call with mom and many discussions with the headmaster, the student ended up being exempt from reading the book.

Every Reasonable Person indeed.
posted by phunniemee at 12:41 PM on September 29, 2015 [14 favorites]


Metafilter: Consider the Anus.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 1:08 PM on September 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


But of course we’re now living in an era of unprecedented access to reading material. If your local library declines to carry what you want to read these days, there has been no time in history where it’s easier for you to read it anyway.

The writer appears to be unaware that children's access to books is controlled by adults, either directly or indirectly.

If a local library declines to carry a book, and it's not available online for free, does Ms. Graham think that a child can just order whatever they want off of Amazon and have it delivered to their house with no questions asked?
posted by desuetude at 1:09 PM on September 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


Slate's Mom is a crock
posted by thelonius at 1:19 PM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm sure someone said it better already but how about Classic Book Ignored and Suppressed Week?

Banning books in some ways highlights the book and makes people want to seek it out and read it. So, in that regard, banning books doesn't work so well. However, just ignoring a book and hoping it goes away tends to be more effective and it happens all the time. Plus, the curriculum is set up by the adults and teachers so kids can easily miss a lot.
posted by Rashomon at 1:36 PM on September 29, 2015


If it weren't for Banned Book Week, I'd never have read Madame Bovary at age 14. I...think much of it was lost on me at the time.

But you know, my parents were librarians. Banned Book Week was like Passover for us.

Oh, except they were also Orthodox Christian, so I guess that's Pascha...
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:38 PM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Ruth Graham is a troll and has trolled Metafilter before.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 3:04 PM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Melismata: "True, maxsparber, but kids WILL find a way to see what they want to see. "

Privileged kids.
posted by Mitheral at 4:42 PM on September 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


We can never have too much celebration of being able to read books.
posted by Rangi at 4:44 PM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


The consistently interesting BackStory devoted their podcast to censorship this week: Banned: A History of Censorship.

Several of the comments above resonated when I was listening to the segment where they interviewed Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian who made a strong case for why we shouldn't assume this battle's been won:
BRIAN BALOGH: Sherman, is censorship getting better? Or is it getting worse? Or is it just a constant in our lives?

SHERMAN ALEXIE: Well, you know, when you think about school bannings, library challenges, and all this stuff, really on a pure numbers basis, there aren’t that many. There were a lot of forest fires in Washington state this summer. And it just occurred to me that what we’re doing with fighting against these censorship efforts, these banning efforts is that we’re putting out spot fires. We’re putting out lightning strikes, because otherwise these things can grow into larger movements, into conflagrations of oppression.

So each of these is not necessarily dangerous on their own, except inside that particular community. But if they start building together, then it becomes something truly scary.
posted by adamsc at 5:00 PM on September 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


@Wolfster - see the article I linked to above regarding Into the River author Ted Dawe. In his own words he describes how busy bodies effectively banned his book from getting to the readers he wrote it for - disadvantaged kids bored with the reading options available to them which they had a hard time connecting to.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:06 PM on September 29, 2015


Metafilter: Consider the Anus.

I don't WANT to consider anus.
posted by homunculus at 5:50 PM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


You may not want to consider anus, but anus is considering *you*.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:40 PM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm neither an author nor a parent, so these issues feel somewhat remote at this time in my life. They very much didn't feel remote when I was a student in small, conservative towns where there were a lot of challenges by upset parents, at the same time as the rise and peak of the "Moral Majority" and similar movements.

And I suspect that in the town I'm now living (also quite conservative), there are still quite a few old-style challenges, but probably a lot more tacit censorship, of the sort where the teachers and librarians simply never buy or assign a book, so it is never challenged or banned. (The public library is an oasis of liberalism and the librarians are proud to feature banned and challenged books, but the school system is a world apart.)

So while I agree that maybe the language of this could be updated to meet the ways in which books are suppressed today versus twenty years ago, I don't at all think that this is a solved issue or one that is not germane to the writers I love and the entire world of ideas and language that enriches my life.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:05 PM on September 29, 2015


The writer seems to have forgotten Charlie Hebdo.
posted by humanfont at 7:26 PM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a local guy whose literacy program—The Uprise Books Project—deals exclusively in banned or challenged books for at-risk youth. I think it's a pretty good angle:"The man doesn't want you to read this."

Though he did mention the most challenged book is the Captain Underpants series, because nudity.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:59 PM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Privileged kids.

Not even them, they've got the helicopter parents.
posted by desuetude at 8:32 PM on September 29, 2015


I'm a school librarian (in the UK). We do practice censorship to a certain degree, because we have policies in place to keep adult-rates materials out of the hands of 15 year-olds - for example, we don't stock 50 Shades of Grey, but we do stock a wide range of YA novels that deal with sex and other issues. The only time I personally apply censorship is regarding non fiction, because, frankly, I'm not going to stock a how-to guide by a neo Nazi that a kid requested without realising what it was.

The biggest struggle I ever had was ordering an outdated but still culturally relevant history book because I was worried someone would read it and not realise that the research was shoddy and the guy was basically making things up. It was agonising. In the end I just had to let it go and hope those reading it would do their own research. Even writing this is making me itch.
posted by toerinishuman at 8:45 PM on September 29, 2015


Was it Guns, Germs, and Steel?
posted by teponaztli at 9:40 PM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, this seems more like a case of "I don't hear about it so it must no longer be a problem" type of deal.

'Why do I even have an immune system? I'm not sick.'
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:03 PM on September 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ha! No, it was Black Athena, which is important because of its place in historiography but jumps to a lot of conclusions. A level students are just learning how to critique sources and tend to think books are Facts.
posted by toerinishuman at 1:01 AM on September 30, 2015


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