03 October 2012

Wherein I Rant about Banned Books Week

It is that time of year again. The week when nearly every librarian and their brother give enthusiastic exhortations to "Read Banned Books!" and proceed to superficially discuss the importance of 'intellectual freedom.'

It would be an understatement to say that I am deeply exasperated by the annual celebration of Banned Books Week. Like a lot of other ALA advocacy efforts, it is emotionally charged, politically correct, and does not facilitate a rich discussion of the issues it aims to address. I hope this post enables a bit of that discussion. My heart was warmed earlier this week by a post from Annoyed Librarian which addresses the mis-direction of Banned Books Week. Like many modern librarian activities, it involves a healthy dose of pretend progressivism:
"This is such a typically radical librarian thing to do: pretend to be subversive and daring by doing something that's not remotely prohibited by law, including some apparently xenophobic laws in Arizona. Unless the underground librarians are planning to sneak into classrooms and start teaching kids Sandra Cisneros, all the feelgood drama is completely unnecessary."
As someone who doesn't abide by the ALA's fake subversiveness, I guess I get a prize for having a truly radical librarian view (?).

In regards to the discussion of intellectual freedom and 'spreading awareness' about the lingering impact of censorship in today's libraries, I am almost always disappointed by the tone of articles, blog posts, etc. that inevitably end in a disparagement of so-called 'inquisitionist' or 'crazy' parents who wish to thrust their mind control upon the rest of society. While it is true that virtually all instances of what are now colloquially referred to as 'book banning' are mere challenges placed by individual parents in school or public libraries, many parents who submit such challenges do so with the good intentions of properly stewarding their children's media consumption. I still think it is naive of them to presume that all libraries, even the children's section, are completely tailored to their value system and parenting methods, and also think it is silly to think that said libraries should be punished just because you did not double-check junior's book bag. Nonetheless, this is the very population of 'pro-censorship' people that Banned Books Week Advocacy seems to be aimed at, yet I rarely hear anyone charitably engage book-challenging parents in a logical dialog about why censorship might be problematic. Such respect is often feigned, albeit well, by reference desk staffers with short tempers. Usually what one hears is akin to "Stop being difficult. You are annoying. We are right. You are wrong. Read banned books!"So much for library neutrality.

Aside from its feigned radicalism, my two biggest criticisms of Banned Books Week are 1) that it only perpetuates myths and misconceptions of censorship rather than educating the public about reality and 2) its false subversiveness and one-dimensional slogan do not encourage the public, whether young or old, to critically examine their attitudes about reading and media consumption.

Far too many people make reference to the Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum in reference to Banned Books Week and general discussions about censorship and intellectual freedom. But few of them have actually sufficiently researched the Index, let alone looked at an actual copy of it. Mention the Index to someone and they will likely start huffing and puffing about how the Church wanted to control the world's political system and everyone's mind so it got organized and decided to make a big list of books that it didn't want people to read (I do feel sorry for the poor people of Quebec that have to deal to this day with a hackneyed, un-integrated public library system due to the prevalence of historical Catholic influence, as described by Laura Sanders over at Hack Library School. But again, notice how the Church's prerogative is 'control.')

 First of all, the Church has always very openly endorsed the idea of free will (CCC 731 ff.), and secondly, books on the Index weren't 'banned' per se. Anyone could read titles in the Index, provided that they had the appropriate ecclesiastical permission. The idea behind the Index, even though the execution was rather clumsy and ultimately failed at its original goal, was to get across the idea that, in fact, ideas can be dangerous to one's intellectual and spiritual well-being. Although the  Index  ceased publication almost fifty years ago, it was not ever officially abolished (the sub-heading on the Wikipedia article is misleading-take a peek at the entries at New Advent for more thorough coverage), in order to preserve the notion that some reading may be dangerous to spirituality and morals. Surely the Index was a rather clumsy (and as many assert, perhaps unrighteous) way of getting this point across, especially in its early years, but hey, this printing press thing was a wild new phenomena. I wish that Banned Books Week activities would encourage a more nuanced discussion of the Index in particular. Just, please, learn something, anything, more about the Index other than the myths perpetuated by hearsay. I also wish that librarians in general would be as excited about theology as they are about bashing the Index. When pigs fly, I suppose. Soon I shall get around to doing a more detailed post specifically on the Index. But for now, I digress.

As AL notes in her post, books haven't been 'banned' in an official or widespread manner in the U.S. for a very long time. And even when they were it was not very extensive. Official censorship is still in existence in other countries, such as China, and to some degree in the Middle East. Ireland still has an office that 'censors' films. Soviet powers have had a messy history of painstakingly doctoring their archival record to distort and polish the government's public image. This is indeed a time when we should be grateful to live in a country where we are free from such intrusive regimes. I am thankful that I can check out a book from the library and not be violently confronted or prosecuted. I am even more thankful that I have been able to start a career in a non-academic field, which has given me untold freedom to read what I wish in my precious spare time, instead of being doomed to read nothing but what pertains to my dissertation for the foreseeable future (any academics reading, please make room for some leisure reading-the world needs your brains intact!). But rallying false subversiveness and pretending that we are still under the thumb of the big invisible censorship monster is not an appropriate way to celebrate this freedom. We need to stop acting like victims.

Partially fueled by the culture of Banned Books Week, 'censorship' has turned into the ultimate dirty word. In a culture that loves the simplicity of absolutes, 'censorship' is popularly understood as an intrinsic and absolute evil that should have no place in our schools or libraries. Perish the thought that censorship could possibly serve a good purpose. Reading-all reading-and freedom to choose what to read/consume, are seen as absolute and inviolable goods (Does "My brain, my choice!" sound like an appropriate slogan?). When I refer to censorship, I am not referring to some inquisitionist regime that seeks to violate a person's dignity by severely limiting their media consumption. When I think of censorship, I am thinking that the application certain boundaries or limits to our reading or other media consumption can serve a particular good. In order to serve this good, I choose to read The Divine Comedy instead of the latest Jodi Picoult novel. I choose to read The Economist instead of People magazine. I choose to read a scholarly book about Galileo instead of scummy internet message boards pitting religion against science. This good can be served whether a person applies these limits to himself, submits to certain limitations in obedience to a moral authority, or if a parent imposes them on a child.

My objections to Banned Books Week are not due to my belief that all 'banned'/challenged books are bad. A lot of historically challenged books are darn good. To Kill a Mockingbird? The Giver? Huck Finn? Bridge to Terebithia? The Bible?! There goes a good chunk of my grade school/high school literature and theology curriculum. The problem with Banned Books Week is not that is encourages us to read banned books, but that it suggests that mere controversy, no matter the cause, makes books worth reading. If I follow the ALA's handy little timeline module, the books I just mentioned are in company with a raunchy memoir by Madonna and Gossip Girl. No, Banned Books Week is not absurd because of its 'subversiveness' or radicalism. It is absurd because of its relativism. The overly simplistic philosophy of the "freedom to read" makes choice-any choice-the arbiter of good taste. It falsely equivocates all reading-any reading I choose-with good reading. In attempting to promote the power of reading through the empowerment of unbridled choice, it strips reading of all power. But if there is one hopeful glint of light in all this, it is that if it is so difficult to shake this sense that reading certain books is a 'subversive' activity, then there is still a subliminal sense that what we read truly matters.

What we read matters. This is the point that I wish were more vociferously promoted in schools, libraries, and homes. Not, that reading is awesome just because we have the power to choose to read whatever we want, but that, as controversial books have shown us, reading can change the world (As someone recently wrote about Jane Austen, 'safe' books aren't still read 200 years later). Even more importantly, reading can profoundly shape who we are. And as such, we shouldn't go about reading carelessly. Reading wouldn't be half as fun if it weren't potentially 'dangerous.' As Alasdair MacIntyre noted in a recent lecture on censorship, "The intellectual life...ought to be understood as a life of risk-taking and danger" (2009). What is peculiar about the atmosphere commonly created by Banned Books Week activities is that it flaunts the attractiveness of this danger, yet simultaneously advertises this 'dangerous' reading as 'safe' and relatively inconsequential (I could make a horrible joke about what our culture teaches about 'safe sex,' but I won't go there).

It is true that there is no one-size fits all reading list, nor is there any scientific formula that can tells us what books are best read, and in what order they should be read. But I think there is a ideal set of books and a ideal order for each person to read them. Encouraging children to read anything just to get them to learn to read completely defeats the point of teaching them to read in the first place. Reading-just reading anything, is not what makes us better people. Reading well-not only good books, but confronting them, loving them, critically analyzing their contents--is what will make us better people. There are too many books in the world to go through one's reading life willy nilly. In fact, one has to be tremendously determined to fit mostly 'good' books into their diet (and by 'good' books, I do not mean some white-washed puritanical story-telling. Some of the best films have an 'R' rating). I often give grief to Great Books Programs about their tendency to foster elitist and isolationist attitudes about reading (which they in fact do under certain circumstances), but if they do one thing right, it is reading well. Many graduates of these programs become 'career mavericks,' doing everything from teaching and producing films, to diving into entrepreneurship and missionary work. They know how to think critically and creatively, with a keen sense of humanity. In recent years, volunteer programs have brought Great Books classes to prisons, where inmates thrive off of discussions of timeless ideas. In our world of financial crises, political unrest, religious violence, and corporate corruption, we need good readers. They need to recognize that their choice of reading is important, not just because they possess it, but because the future of the world in is their hands. Most importantly, they should read well to become more fully human.

So on this occasion of Banned Books Week, don't just read, read dangerously, and well.


  1. Wow, I love what you say about BBW! See http://tinyurl.com/Sowell where I have a long list of people complaining similar to you. I'm going to add yours, actually, soonish.

    But I really came here to advise that your @JoAnnaMRoman account may have been hacked as it just sent me a spammy DM. Get help for that here:

    I thought it best to tell you that here as a DM response from @SafeLibraries might simply have gone to the spammer.

  2. Thanks for the Twitter heads-up. I think my thoughts are more applicable to crafting philosophies of education and reading than just the 'censorship' issue-the rhetorical problems with Banned Books Week are indicative of a larger problem with critical engagement and things like the current state of political discourse. Everyone is 'choosing', 'reading,' 'making their voice heard,' but relatively few people are actually constructively forming opinions and reasoning. The current foibles with BBW are simply ruining a golden opportunity for individuals to practice these things.