Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

You Have a Duty To "Ban" Books

This weekend marks the conclusion of Banned Books Week, a festival of moral preening in which students, librarians, teachers and others congratulate themselves for bravely demanding that various books not be removed from library (typically school library) shelves.

The event ties in to basic modern tropes of progress and freedom. After all, says the common wisdom, who burned books? Nazis. And crazy people in the middle ages who were afraid of progress. We don't want to be like them, do we?

Of course, choosing not to have a book in your collection is not really "banning" it (as in making it forbidden to own) nor is it "censoring" it (removing parts). So to start with much of the furor over the "banning" of books is overwrought.

But it is true that, with a little looking, one can find really absurd examples of books being pulled from library collections in order to avoid controversy. One standard complaint is of religious parents of a certain stripe asking that fantasy books such as Harry Potter be removed from childrens sections or school libraries because of their portrayal of magic. Other "bans" are oddly PC. For instance, the edition of Little Red Riding Hood featured in the above anti-gun ad was apparently removed from the school libraries of two California schools some decades ago because Little Red Riding Hood's basket of food included a bottle of wine. Huck Finn is sometimes removed from school libraries because of its constant use of the word "nigger". Yet other "bans" involve books which contain descriptions of violence or sex which people are concerned are not appropriate for the age group of children for whom the collection is maintained. 

However, I believe all this fuss ends up ignoring a basic point: Those who are responsible for assembling a collection of books (whether for their own enjoyment or for that of a some wider group) have an intellectual and moral responsibility to populate that collection with books which are suited to its purpose. If it's a collection of books specifically for children, this means selecting books which are both age appropriate and which are not likely to damage their intended audience.

This last, clearly, is going to leave room for plenty of controversy. For instance, some parents believe that Harry Potter, The Hobbit and even the Narnia books are genuinely damaging to children because they are fantasy. I think this is utter nonsense. These kind of disagreements, like all disagreements as to what's good and what's true, will necessarily lead to certain types of controversy and struggle.

However, the fact that it leads to controversy doesn't mean that the basic principle is not worthwhile. I think that if advocates thought about this a bit, they would realize that their objection is not to book "banning" but rather to people with different standards than themselves being in charge of which books will and will not be in the collection of a given library. Would the champions of Banned Book Week really fight to make sure that kids had access to a picture book entitled "The Darkies Need Our Help" in which young readers learned that black people were governed by animal instincts and could only be civilized by the paternalistic guidance of white people? Or how about "They Eat Gentiles" in which young readers were taught, as if factual, the blood libel claim that Jews kidnapped, killed and ate gentile children as part of obscene rites?

I would hope that it would be clear to anyone that there are at least some books which it would not be a good idea include the collection you manage for public use -- especially given that in the reality of fixed budgets and space, including a book which you are convinced is bad means not having space and money to include books which are better.

This duty will require more active intervention in cases where the collection is being maintained for a specific purpose, for instance a children's collection or a collection which is intended to provide good information on a specific topic.

Someone tasked to maintain a children's collection has the duty to include only books which he reasonably believes are good reading material for children. Choosing not to include a book because you think it's untrue or offensive is a good action (as is choosing not to include books which you simply think are inaccurate, badly written, dull or ugly.)

A person who is responsible for a subject specific library also has a responsibility to use discretion. For instance, when a parish maintains a library for its parishioners use, I think there's an implicit assumption that the library will contain books that will allow readers to learn about the Church. Thus, the person in charge of that collection has a duty to select books which accurately convey Catholic teaching. That may mean that the collection isn't as exciting as someone interested in theological speculation might like, but that's not the purpose of the collection.

Most of the claims of book banning center around purpose-specific collections such as school libraries and children's sections of public libraries, but even with the general section of a public library, I think there's clearly a duty to exert a degree of quality control. Yes, to a great extent public libraries are simply in the business of stocking books which people want to read. In the non-fiction sections, I would hope there's some effort put into acquiring primarily books that are accurate. And frankly, I think it would be a good thing if there were more emphasis put on quality in other areas as well. The online catalog of our local city library tells me that it has 25 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (six of which are listed as "lost or stolen") plus three copies of the audiobook version and more in the large print and Spanish language sections. This from the library which didn't have a single copy of Tristam Shandy or Far From The Madding Crowd. I don't demand that libraries not stock smutty books, but if you want to read badly written smut, I would think the library might leave you to pick it up on your own at least until after it's managed to stock basic classics.


Enbrethiliel said...


Banned Books Week is one of the highlights of the book blogging community's year. I find it totally pointless, especially in an age when anyone who can publicly celebrate this week can get a copy of any book that was "challenged." There's something bratty about it. Bragging about reading banned books is like bragging about dating people whose ethnicity your parents didn't like. It makes you exactly like your parents.

This is why some book bloggers and Goodreads reviewers have a habit of blacklisting any authors who react badly to negative reviews--"badly" defined as whatever the former group finds offensive. You can't pat yourself on the back for reading a banned book if you try to get other people to stop reading authors who haven't been nice to you or your friends.

As for the authors themselves, many have admitted that one of the best things that could happen to them is the controversy that comes from being "banned." Well, okay, if you want your book to be known for something that has nothing to do with its quality and everything to do with the perceptions of people you obviously look down on.

And I should blog about this properly instead of cluttering your combox, Darwins.

Kristin said...

I could get behind the anti-banning movement if they focused more on governmental bans instead of what individual libraries choose to include or exclude.

Renee said...

So is the Bible ever highlighted in banned book week? Its a book and lots of people object anyone in public to read it.

Barbara C. said...

It's a marketing ploy.

Public libraries have to justify the funding they receive from taxpayers. The way to do that is to have a list of statistics (x number of books checked out by x number of patrons). It also means having a supply of the books in demand, so that patrons don't give up on the wait list and go buy the book for themselves.

It is silly why some books have been banned over the years. Juvenile fiction that was ban for no other reason than a couple of cuss words 15 years ago would be considered PG next to some of the crap marketed to teens these days.

I think school libraries are a whole other story, though. I think they, too, are also obsessed with getting kids to read no matter what it is they are reading. I think they would hand them "Fifty Shades" if they thought it would get kids to read.

You also have teachers use inappropriate books to teach "diversity" and "tolerance" and "self-esteem".

Jenny said...

If only I could ban "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and "Junie B Jones" from the library at my kids' school. Half-literate twaddle.

My graduate degree is from an ALA-approved program. Let's just say I trust most librarians about as far as I could pick them up and throw them. Too many of them where I went to school believed it was their job to give the children whatever was demanded in spite of the wishes of parents.

" I think they would hand them "Fifty Shades" if they thought it would get kids to read."

I think they would hand them "Fifty Shades" as well but mostly because there is a strong philosophical belief that parents don't really have the right to veto their children's reading choices.

Clare said...

My own book banning has all been on a relatively innocuous scale. Last year as a preschool teacher, I spent many an afternoon rummaging through the shelves and tossing chaff. Chaff was anything based on a movie or tv show, anything illustrated by Thomas Kincade, anything oozily sentimental, or just anything that seemed flimsy and plodding and mass produced.

These books weren't even in any way offensive or bad. They just weren't that great, and distracted from the surfeit of wonderful children's books my classroom held.

I was very lucky that I was able to pick and choose so nicely. I think that having a collection of mediocre books is probably better than few or no books, in the case of emerging readers; I remember I read much mild trash, many soup can labels, and a few good books all indiscriminately when I was flexing the muscle and developing a taste for reading as a pursuit. But how much better for librarians and teachers to be able to pick and choose and curate, and compromise neither quality nor plenty.

Darwin said...

Indeed, there's no test for good children's books (especially picture books) like constant reading. My threshold is: if I find myself frustrated or bored having to read a book over and over again, it's not a very good book.

On the other hand, I could read A Tea Set for Francis or The Story of Babar or Library Lion pretty much all day long.

Sarah said...

I went to grad school in library science, so I heard a lot about this. My take is that outright banning a book is better (though not ideal, per Darwin's commentary) than censoring the real thing and neutering it, like some ignorant folks have done with Huck Finn. In my school (admittedly not public) the guidance counselor went through The Great Gatsby with a white-out pen to every cuss word. I guess she thought 11th graders couldn't handle a few damns. Of course, that just meant that we held it up to the light to see what it said, and it was always obvious in the context anyway. *Face-palm.*

Foxfier said...

As best I can tell, our local library "cleans" the childrens' section by sending any book more than five or ten years old-- purchase date, not publish date-- to the storage center. They're still in the system, but they're not on the shelves.

This makes for a funny market for books that I'd swear were written in the 70s but were actually published last year.
You know a movement is in trouble when they can't find enough banned books to push, and they have to go digging for "someone, somewhere, asked if this was really a good idea for the audience it was being pushed at."

Foxfier said...

. In my school (admittedly not public) the guidance counselor went through The Great Gatsby with a white-out pen to every cuss word. I guess she thought 11th graders couldn't handle a few damns. Of course, that just meant that we held it up to the light to see what it said, and it was always obvious in the context anyway. *Face-palm.*

I figure something as obvious as that is like a bleeped CD-- you know what's there, but the lack of repetition does mean that you're less likely to drop the word in conversation.

Kate said...

I think a Banned Books Week that stuck to featuring books that have genuinely been banned (are made illegal to buy or to publish by political authority) would be fascinating. Maybe the ALA feels safer aiming at small anonymous local complaints rather than actual oppressive nations and governments?

Kate said...

By 'anonymous' I mean not that the complaints were originally made anonymously, but that the complainants are mostly people of only limited power or influence.

Darwin said...

Yes, there's a certain elitism to focusing a "banned book week" on the complains of ordinary people who wanted some book pulled out of an American library. It would be significantly more interesting to have a week focusing on books that really have been banned by governments (ours in the past, but and oppressive ones abroad.)