The American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week every year in late September. This year Banned Books Week is officially taking place from September 26th through October 3rd, which, by my count, is eight days. And why not add an extra day to that week? Banning books is an important subject. Personally I’m all for banning books. In fact I’m tempted to help celebrate Banned Books Week by lodging a complaint about the library’s copy of The Geometry and Topology of Coxeter Groups. I’m terrible at math, and therefore the presence of such a heavily math-oriented book in the library offends me.
In all seriousness, the ongoing attempts to ban certain books does have its positive side. People challenge books because they find the books themselves challenging. Any book that challenges our assumptions, that forces us to rethink what we believe, is valuable, even if we come through the process with our original assumptions intact. And attempts to ban books contribute to the discussion. I’m not in favor of banning books but every single day librarians look at books and ask themselves, “Should this be part of the library’s collection?” There are numerous factors that go into the decision, but I think what patrons think and what they want should be part of that discussion. Banning a book usually means that one patron or a small number of patrons is attempting to dictate what everyone else shouldn’t read, but I do think there’s value in defending a particular book’s inclusion in a library collection. It serves as a reminder of how important books are, and how important it is to include a wide array of perspectives. Of course the need for a wide array of perspectives is the main reason not to ban any book.
There’s another positive side in attempts to ban books: they draw attention to books that might go unnoticed. Mark Twain once defined a “classic” as “A book which people praise but don’t read.” Earlier this year I wrote about a lawsuit brought against the the West Bend, Wisconsin Community Memorial Library by a small group of people who wanted to “the right to publicly burn or destroy by another means the library’s copy of Baby Be-Bop.”
I’m sure the people who brought the suit recognized the futility of burning a single copy of a book, but according to the original story they were so offended by it they believed the only way to purge their minds of the horror was to destroy the specific copy they read. As far as I know the book remains in the library’s collection, and I know the story prompted people who’d never heard of it to read it.
Part of the issue with Baby Be-Bop is that the book was written for young adults, and the issue of appropriateness will always be a tricky one for libraries to try and navigate. In a very thoughtful letter to a concerned patron, librarian Jamie LaRue says,
I think a lot of adults imagine that what defines a children’s book is the subject. But that’s not the case. Children’s books deal with anything and everything. There are children’s books about death (even suicide), adult alcoholism, family violence, and more…There is a lot out there that is confusing, or faintly threatening, and even dangerous in the world. Stories help children name their fears, understand them, work out strategies for dealing with life.
Because stories are so valuable and so important it’s often better for libraries to err on the controversial side than limit or completely cut off access to a book that might actually help someone.
Most of what we read is private, and librarians have worked very hard to keep the records of patrons private, but I know of at least one case of someone reading something as a public statement. A friend of mine in high school decided to read Mein Kampf. He made sure to read it where people would see him reading it. He wasn’t interested in emulating Hitler or any of Hitler’s ideas. He was reading it purely because it was controversial. He wanted partly to see what all the fuss was about, but also to read it as a statement about the value of considering even really bad ideas. He later told me that he hadn’t thought about the possibility that people would think he was a neo-Nazi. The worst thing about reading Mein Kampf, he said, was that it was excruciatingly boring. He added, “I wish all Hitler had done was write this lousy book, because then nobody would know who he was.”
That’s assuming, of course, that no one tried to get the book banned from a library.