It could be that I’m from the Soviet Union, or it could be that I love dystopian literature, but I was always under the impression that a “ban” was a prohibition. When a book was banned, its publication, possession, consumption, and often mere mention were criminal offenses. A book ban, from my understanding of the term, was a top-down, government-led censorship that attempted to stop certain ideas from finding their way into the consciousness of the people. Certainly, most regimes and governments that ban books tend to use those metrics.
But here we are and another year’s “Banned Book Week” in America is winding down.
Judging by the press for the event, the modern history of the United States is replete with book bannings. Almost every book you love was probably banned at some point. And what’s more, they were banned recently.
Banning books, according to the narrative, isn’t something that only happens in repressive regimes, dystopian novels, or in our dark past. No. Upon entering any library or book retailer this week (the latter being places that, as it happens, have loads of “banned books” to sell you) you will learn that the banning of books is a real and present danger in the United States. It is happening at this very moment and we must be vigilant to prevent more book banning from occurring. The very earnest librarian or bookstore employee will tell you so.
What Kind of ‘Ban’ is This?
Leading the list of “banned books” are most often Harry Potter and Captain Underpants—which apparently were banned so much in the United States that they outsold almost all the other books during the years of their initial publication and hardest banning. If this isn’t shocking enough, we see classics such as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby occupy places of distinction among the banned. Reading one of the “banned books” is presented as a kind of revolutionary act of defiance. Curl up with a copy of Harry Potter, and suddenly you’re a part of The Resistance.
Trouble is, none of these books were ever actually banned in the United States. At least not in the sense that any rational person understands the term. These books have all enjoyed full and relatively uninterrupted publishing runs, and are readily available for purchase (and nowhere more readily than at the stores celebrating “Banned Book Week”). Reading them hasn’t landed anyone in jail and there is a surfeit of real-world and online discussion groups and book clubs dedicated to their content.
So how is it that so many books can be on a “banned” list (with more being added every year) if these books weren’t ever banned?
The answer is in the power of purposely misusing language to mislead. They’re lying.
Well, to be fair, as Whoopie Goldberg would say, it’s not lying-lying. It’s just a redefinition here and a conflation there. You might call it “marketing.”
Congratulations! You’ve Been Banned*
What the American Library Association (ALA) has done in fostering “Banned Book Week” is to broadly repurpose the culturally and emotionally charged word “banned” and then to conflate their already watered down redefinition with other language in service of selling a narrative . . . and books.
If we look past the headlines, the buzz, and the store shelf endcap advertising, we see that “book ban” for the ALA campaign does not mean government or official prohibition on the general production, consumption, or discussion of a work. The ALA has redefined “banned book” to mean that the work was removed from a library or school curriculum as a result of a challenge. The books aren’t prohibited, they’re just not offered or promoted in certain places at certain times, often to particular audiences.
This is a far cry from the popular conception of a book ban with government-sponsored book burnings, government inquisitions, and prisons. Frankly, the ALA’s use of the word “banned” is so distant from our common cultural perception of it that they should probably follow it up with an asterisk.
The ALA website states that Banned* Books Week celebrates “your freedom to read” when in fact nothing is stopping you from reading. Not. A. Thing. These days, with an ever-increasing variety of sources available for information acquisition, it’s ludicrous to argue that the exclusion of a book from a library somehow makes that book impossible to get.
If that weren’t enough, most of the banned* books listed on the ALA’s website don’t even rise to the level of their redefinition of the word “banned”! Many of the books included on the list of banned* books were never actually removed from libraries. Merely being challenged lands a book on the list. That means anyone (including someone clever enough to realize this is a good way to sell books) might land a title on the list by simply questioning a librarian or school officials about a book.
The ALA is trying to lure their audience with the romance of the oppressed while simultaneously playing fast and loose with language in ways that any current or former denizen of an oppressive state where books are really banned would warn against. There are real consequences to this kind of campaign. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education.
Librarians Versus Parents
According to the ALA’s own stats, only 2 percent of challenges come from government. Turns out, the vast majority of challenges come from parents concerned about their kids’ education and are centered around schools and school libraries. But every good narrative needs a villain. Apparently, the ALA thinks concerned parents who want to be involved in and supervise their children’s education fit that bill.
The ALA’s cavalier juxtaposition of the educational concerns of parents with Soviet, Nazi, and Dystopian book censors is bad enough, but compounds that vicious error with mockery. On its website, the ALA mocks and minimizes parent’s concerns over their children’s education by remarking that parental involvement in education is “Velcro Parenting.” As if concerned parenting was somehow something that needed defense.
Rather than honestly address the thorny issue of age-appropriate education, the ALA reveals its opinion that their expertise on these matters is superior to that of mere parents and it disincentivizes parental participation in education by mocking it and demonizing real concern over what children read while still developing.
If you thought the problem in education today was a lack of parental involvement, the ALA is here to tell you, you’re wrong. You, parents, you’re the problem.
Let’s create a hypothetical situation where an overzealous teacher chooses a book, almost universally reviled—let’s say the Turner Diaries—for inclusion in her 6th or 7th-grade classroom. Is it really a call to “book banning” if parents question that choice? The irresponsible use of the loaded words “book banning” serves to stigmatize parents who are concerned about their children’s education, and often silences them as the term applies social pressure to stay quiet when books they find objectionable, for whatever reason, are incorporated into the curriculum.
This is not about banning or censorship generally. It’s about who gets to decide what is appropriate for kids to learn and at what age. Is it educators, libraries, parents, or a balance of the three? The issue is thorny, but painting parents, who should be educational partners, as jackbooted censors is wrong on every level.
Words matter and the words “banned book” have specific and incendiary connotations. The ALA does a disservice to itself, to the public, and to all serious discussion of art and society by using falsehoods to sell something that merits serious attention. Further, it demonizes concerned parents while ultimately hurting education.
“Controversial Book Week” would be much less sexy than “Banned Book Week,” but at least it would be more honest. I would welcome the change as it would allow us to discuss the necessary push and pull between community standards, parental concerns and art in a meaningful and productive way.