Friday, October 2, 2009

Jumping on the Banned-Wagon: The Controversy Over Banned Books Week

This Friday marks the end of Banned Books Week, as celebrated by the American Library Association, a non-profit coalition of librarians and their ilk. Perhaps you heard about this. Librarians are not necessarily the most raucous bunch, even when defending your First Amendment rights; the public libraries in my area set up small displays of the most commonly censored books in America, while the slightly more radical university library staged a reading of Huckleberry Finn and The Kite Runner, among other titles. The week usually comes and goes fairly quietly. However, an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal has launched perhaps the greatest controversy Banned Books Week has seen in the twenty-eight years since its inception. Which is not saying a whole lot, but librarians have to get their political controversy where they can.

You can read the September 25th opinion piece by columnist Mitchell Muncy here. Go ahead. Check it out. Take your time. I'll be waiting for you after the jump

Did you read it? What did you think? My own take on the article is that it has two main points, one of which is somewhat defensible and the other of which is utterly bizarre. Muncy's first point is that what the ALA calls "censorship" is actually private citizens being concerned for the well-being of their community, not some sort of insidious government plot to suppress publications. His second point is that librarians have their own secret agenda in the books they choose to make available to the general public.

Let's deal with the second point first, as that's the one that's way out of left field. In all fairness, I need to state that my mother worked at a public library for a number of years. The only secret agenda to I which I was ever privy was a plot to prevent the homeless people from using the public computers to look at pornography. Other than that, I really doubt that librarians, either in public libraries or schools, have any sort of agenda. Most libraries accept patron feedback in order to select the materials they procure, as they truly do try to serve the community as best they can. Librarians are a quiet and unassuming bunch. They want you to be reading, first and foremost, and they don't really give a shit what you read.

As a brief experiment, I did some quick searches in the catalog of the Leon County Public Library system, the library of my own home in Tallahassee, Florida. Leon County is a blue county in a blue state. Below is a graph comparing the number of books by various political pundits that my library system has on record:

In case you were out in sick when they taught graphs in the third grade, let me clarify something: Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly each have more books in the library system than the goddam President. And that's not even counting audiobooks and the like. If the librarians in my county have an agenda, it's more in line with Rupert Murdoch than anyone else (who, coincidentally, owns the Wall Street Journal). But, as Levar Burton would tell you, you don't have to take my word for it. Check out your own library and see what it has. The fascinating thing is, if your library doesn't have the books corresponding to your particular ideology, there is probably a very nice spectacled woman behind the front desk who will be willing to find it for you at another library and transport it to your home town for free. Neat, huh?

I also disagree with Muncy's initial premise, but this argument is better explained and genuinely gave me things to think about. Muncy takes issue with the ALA decrying censorship in publicly-funded institutions, maintaining that there really is no censorship, and that those who challenge books are merely parents concerned for the well-being of their children and the community at large.

Muncy may have a point when he looks at the ALA Banned Books Week "manifesto", a ferocious poem that derides those who challenge books as "zealots...bigots and false patriots". A tad politically charged, and perhaps ill-chosen, I'm still willing to overlook this for the most part. If the primary purpose of Banned Books Week is to make reading sexy, than this sort of polemic succeeds perfectly. What better way to get people reading than to suggest that these books are dangerous, that there are forces out there that don't want you reading this stuff? It's unfair and hyperbolic to sum up all those who challenge books as "false patriots", though, and this may be Muncy's best argument.

I thought Muncy may have had another good argument when he addressed the matter of private citizens taking issue with books featured in public schools. I don't think it is out of line for, say, the parent of a third-grader to make sure their child doesn't read anything too frightening or appalling, and this seems to be the brunt of Muncy's argument.. Looking through the list of last year's banned books, however, there were very little challenges that applied to younger children. Most challenges concerned books taught in high school, or featured in public libraries. I believe that students of these ages are more mature than they are given credit for, and perfectly ready to read books with complex or incendiary ideas. These challenges seem to fall into three categories:

1) The books feature sexuality, or homosexuality, and the parents object to the students being exposed to this. Challenges include everything from The Kite Runner to those awkward puberty books you had to read in 8th grade health class.

2) The books feature some sort of objectionable religious content, either promoting witchcraft or atheism. The Harry Potter books top this list.

3) The books contain some sort of racism or other objectionable behavior. Examples include Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

The first two categories are pretty silly, and I think it's unfair for parents to object to such material. You can raise your children to be religious, for example, and still have them read books that include atheist ideas. These seem largely attempts by overzealous parents to not only prevent their child from losing their faith or "catching the gay", but even be aware that there are different ideologies present in the world today.

The third category is a little trickier. The parents who are concerned about these works seem to think that the inclusion of questionable ideals in a book translates into an endorsement of those ideals. This is not the case at all. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are two of the most engaging, profound novels to protest racism that a high-school student can read. However, since both feature racial slurs and racist characters, there are people out there who want to ban these books. This is a ridiculous notion. Racism in these books is an unfortunately historical reality that the authors address and fight against. Mere inclusion does not mean it is teaching the students these things. This sort of thing is as ridiculous as the MPAA trying to prevent children from seeing smoking in movies; pretending something isn't there doesn't make it go away, it only makes your piece of art disingenuous at best.

I suppose, in the end, there is nothing wrong with a concerned parent politely questioning the existence of a specific work in a school or public library. These, after all, are books purchased by tax dollars, and the public has just as much a right to question these purchases as any other. However, I feel that many of these examples are well-meaning but ignorant parents who are oblivious to two things. For one, the average child is privy to all sorts of obscenities and lewd sexual jokes by taking the school bus in the morning. If your child doesn't learn these words from a book, he'll learn them from the older kids on the playground. And two, while books refine opinions and open up new avenues of thought, rarely do they completely change somebody's mind. If your child becomes a militant atheist or starts quoting Nietzsche, there are ideas at work inside his or her mind beyond what has been written on the page. Books help shape and mold ideas, and possibly plant seeds for further thought, but if your child has adopted ideas you disagree with, it is because that child truly believes in something. Not because he or she has been brainwashed after being exposed to Philip Pullman.

So no, Mitchell Muncy, the "censorship" in our world today is not government censorship. You are correct that it is private citizens concerned with the works made available to children. However, you're missing the point of Banned Books Week altogether. This week is not merely about fighting these challenges, but also taking pride in our freedom to read books that have been challenged. Just take a look at what's happening in Honduras this week, and suddenly it feels very good to live in America, where we can check out Michael Moore and Ann Coulter at a public library for absolutely no cost. Banned Books Week is celebrating the fact that books are not banned in this country. By engaging in literary discourse and expressing his opinion, Muncy is, in his own way, helping to celebrate the event. He's completely wrong, of course. But that's his right.

Ain't it grand to be an American?