Banning books silences stories: Reading a banned book celebrates your intellectual freedom

Posted on September 18, 2018 at 6:00 am

by Melissa Rhoades

Banned Books Week is September 23–29 this year.

Did you know that at least 23 of the 100 books on PBS’s 2018 Great American Read book list have been banned or threatened with a ban in the United States?

That means almost one-fourth of America’s “most loved” novels (as determined by popular vote) have faced censorship in the U.S.

These bans didn’t just happen in the distant past, either.

J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale—all adapted to the screen since 2000—are among the top 100 books banned between 2000 and 2010. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most frequently banned books in U.S. history and was banned again as recently as October 2017.

In fact, research by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reveals that 2017 saw an increase in attempts at censorship across the United States.

But what does it mean for a book to be “banned” in the United States?

Before a book can be banned, it must first be “challenged.” The ALA defines a challenge as “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.… 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.” A ban as defined by the ALA is the actual removal of those materials.

According to the University of Buffalo, over 11,300 books were challenged between 1982 and 2015. Thankfully, only a small percentage of challenges so far have led to materials actually being removed. And, when a book does get banned, it isn’t removed from every location in the country. Instead, its access becomes restricted only in the specific school district, library, or community where the challenge arose.

It’s important to acknowledge that, typically, people try to ban materials in an attempt to protect children and young adults. The top reasons books have been challenged in the last decade include profanity, sexually explicit content, LGBTQ subject matter, and content considered by challengers to be offensive or blasphemous.

Since every person and community holds different ideas about what might be offensive or blasphemous, challenges and bans will seem reasonable or unreasonable to different people.

No one I know has been offended by E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, for example. Yet, in 2006, a small community in Kansas (my home state) banned the children’s classic because some community members considered it blasphemous to depict talking animals.

Regardless of cultural differences and individual tastes, every single time a book is banned, someone’s individual right to make decisions about what they read gets stripped away.

In other words, banned books violate intellectual freedom, which is defined by the ALA as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.”

The University of Buffalo’s head of arts, humanities and social sciences explained in 2015 that “even if a challenge or a ban is well-intended, censorship ultimately denies us the ability to think for ourselves.”

The 2017 ban of To Kill a Mockingbird reveals some of the complexities that can arise from bans.

In this instance, Lee’s classic was removed from the eighth-grade curriculum of the Biloxi Public School District (Mississippi) because some language in the book “makes people uncomfortable.” The book does contain racist language (as do many American classics), so it’s understandable that its inclusion in school curricula could be seen as a potential burden to students, especially those who’ve been personally hurt by such language.

Yet, as Philip Nel points out in the “How to Read Uncomfortably” chapter of his book Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: “If we exclude troubling literary works from the discussion, then children will face pain, bigotry, and sorrow on their own” (p 71). Nel further explains that we cannot expect children to learn critical thinking skills without the help of sensitive adults to guide them through complex issues and empower them to form their own opinions. Later in the chapter, Nel points out that removing racist words from one’s reading choices, while well-intentioned, often hides problems instead of solving them (p 93).

The most disturbing element of the 2017 ban was that the Biloxi Public School Board decided a complaint of discomfort was sufficient to remove the book from the classroom.

Think back to when you were in school. Did you ever have a favorite teacher who tackled difficult subject matter head-on instead of shying away from it? A teacher who was your favorite because they made you work harder and think about something in a new way?

Tackling difficult subject matter is never comfortable, but it is often fruitful and advantageous. It may even strengthen ideas and help us more effectively elucidate our own perspective. Education at its best does not cater to comfort, but rather to growth and the exploration of complex realities.

The goal of public libraries is similarly not limited to offering “comfortable” materials. Since library patrons inevitably have widely varying backgrounds, viewpoints, and lifestyles, it’s hard to imagine how limiting materials would even be possible.

The ALA makes clear that libraries are not meant to shield the public. Its Library Bill of Rights explicitly states that “Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” That’s one reason why Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 with help from the ALA’s OIF.

The annual week-long event “highlights the value of free and open access to information.”

For this year’s Banned Books Week, I encourage you to pick up a challenged or banned book and let the story speak to you!

There are thousands of options to choose from. A good place to start is the list of Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2017. Another option is to choose from the 23 banned and challenged books in The Great American Read (listed alphabetically):

Happy reading!

Melissa Rhoades

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