Celebrating Censorship 

How to make the most of Banned Books Week

Since 1982, the American Library Association (ALA), along with a throng of other literary groups, has set aside seven days every year for what they call Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate our constitutional right to read. And in true American form, the way they make the most of this freedom is by recalling all of the times it has been threatened during the previous year. Liberty is never so sweet, it seems, as when it is endangered.

That’s why the ALA has just released “Books Challenged or Banned in 1998-’99,” a catalog of all the reported incidents in which books have been disputed, restricted or forbidden outright in libraries and bookstores across the country. Citing more than 475 separate attempts at censorship from May 1998 to March 1999, the report is well-documented and impressively comprehensive. And if you read between the lines, you just might learn a thing or two.

Foremost among these lessons is one simple truth: Censorship makes everyone look like a hypocrite. For example, right-wing conservatives—who are usually the first to complain about “big government” invading their lives—are frequently seen here pleading with the government to restrict which books Americans can have access to, presumably for their own safety. Meanwhile, left-leaning camps—which are often the most vocal advocates of literary freedom—turn out to be some of its most dogged destroyers, begging librarians to ban books like Little House on the Prairie because they are “insensitive” (read: “not PC”). For sure, censorship makes strange bedfellows, and the ALA has always been quick to note that threats to the First Amendment “come from all quarters and in a variety of political persuasions.” And sometimes, to be honest, these “quarters” seem more like left field. Among this year’s more unusual cases:

• In Zeeland, Mich., Harry Allard’s children’s book The Stupids Die was summarily banned from the public library, along with three other Allard novels, on the grounds that children shouldn’t refer to anyone as “stupid.”

• In Bryant, Ark., a parent demanded that John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men be removed from the school library, because the novel “takes God’s name in vain 15 times and uses Jesus’ name lightly.” In Oakley, Calif., meanwhile, parents challenged the use of the book in classrooms because it employs “racial epithets.”

• In Bradenton Beach, Fla., citizens opposed including Christopher Durang’s play Laughing Wild in the school curriculum, because it contains references to Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

• And in the year’s most eye-widening irony, parents in Wisconsin Falls, Wis., asked that children no longer have access to the social studies book In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action, because of descriptions of violence in one chapter and explicit sexual details in another.

Disputes like these might make book-banners seem like little more than fringe fanatics or frivolous busybodies. But the ALA report also sheds light on some more aggressive methods of censorship, ones that can be cause for real concern. Indeed, some censors cited in the study—including government officials—have gone to extremes to restrict the rights of readers. For example:

• The principal of a middle school in Liverton, R.I., confiscated copies of the young adult novel Go Ask Alice while the class was reading it, for reasons unexplained in the study. The books were later returned to the students by order of the school board.

• After a failed attempt to ban a children’s book called The Duke Who Outlawed Jellybeans at the local library, an outraged citizen in Brevard County, Fla., kept the book out of circulation by signing it out and keeping it for a full year. The same thing happened, in the same town, to a book called Daddy’s Roommate about adult homosexuality. These disappearances appear to be cases of so-called “stealth censorship,” in which censors check out disputed books and withhold or destroy them, rather than accepting the rulings made on their complaints through official channels. In part because of these tactics, the ALA now estimates that about 85 percent of threats against literary freedom go unreported, or even unnoticed.

And as if these guerrilla maneuvers didn’t confuse matters enough, you should also know that the ALA compiles its studies from media reports of censorship cases. So it’s safe to assume that there are several hundred other book battles going on in America that we don’t even know about. To any Montana reader, for instance, the abolition of James Welch’s novel Fools Crow from the Laurel School District this January will seem conspicuously absent from the ALA’s study. Who knows how many more are out there?

So sure, all this may make Banned Books Week seem like more of a time to mourn than to celebrate. But open-minded readers can take heart in the fact that this year’s report is not all bad news. According to ALA, the number of censorship attempts in the United States has leveled off in recent years, and, more heartening, the number of successful challenges are down, with fewer cases resulting in books actually being pulled from the shelves. In the end, they say, the most appropriate way to celebrate censorship is simply to pick up a threatened book and start reading. That, after all, is what your freedom is for.

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