Critic, Book World

If you tell anyone, I’ll deny it, but I’ve been irritated for a long time by Banned Books Week. Despite my unqualified support for the freedom to read, the annual celebration, which began Sunday, has always struck me as shrill and inaccurate. I know the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association and other fine sponsors are doing important, necessary work. I just wish Banned Books Week didn’t appear to exaggerate a problem that’s largely confined to our repressive past.

All week in bookstores and libraries around the country, you’ll see displays, banners and special events like the Drag Queen Story Hour at the Brooklyn Public Library on Wednesday. Central to these celebrations is the annual list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books. This year, like most years, that list includes: Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and other fantastic, award-winning novels that only the most ignorant and backward people would object to.


(Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association)

Which is part of the problem. Are we winning any converts with this annual orgy of self-righteousness? The rhetoric of Banned Books Week is pitched at such a fervent level that crucial distinctions are burned away by the fire of our moral certainty, which is an ill that wide reading should cure not exacerbate.

And what books are actually, effectively “banned” in the United States nowadays? The titles on the Top 10 Most Challenged list, in fact, sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year. How many authors would kill to be “challenged” like that?

James LaRue, from the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, is ready for these quibbles even before I call him. He’s heard them before, but he answers my questions with the patience and clarity of a good librarian — which he once was.

“Who are we kidding?” I ask him. “Books aren’t ‘banned’ in this country anymore. The Supreme Court has made that impossible.”

But LaRue nudges me away from the legal meaning of the term “banned” to consider the lived experience of a vulnerable, lonely reader:

“There are so many places like in rural communities where you say, ‘Well, the book isn’t banned. It’s still been published. It’s still available on Amazon. It’s still in a bookstore.’ But let’s say you’re a young gay kid, and you go to your library, and David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’ has been removed, and so you don’t know that it’s there. You don’t have a credit card to get it from Amazon. You can’t hop in a car if you’re 14 years old and drive to a bookstore. So the ban is not a trivial thing. It’s a deliberate suppression of a viewpoint that has real consequences for people.”

I can feel myself being convinced already.

But what about the way Banned Books Week implicitly stigmatizes anyone who objects to a librarian’s or a teacher’s judgment? The vast majority of people who “challenge” titles are simply parents concerned about the age-appropriateness of books their children are being exposed to. Doesn’t Banned Books Week carelessly lump together the interested mother with the book-burning Nazi?

“If I say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this,’ you have the right to do that,” LaRue acknowledges. “But when you try to remove it from the library, you’re saying that other people’s children don’t have the right to read it.” That, he suggests, is the hallmark of an intolerant society.


(Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association)

LaRue also takes exception to my assumption that only conservatives are trying to remove titles from schools and public libraries. He notes that books by Bill Cosby, Jay Asher and Sherman Alexie are being challenged — not because of their content, but because of allegations of sexual harassment against the authors. He expects to see more objections like this in the future.

Far from it being dated, LaRue believes that Banned Books Week may be more relevant now than it’s been in a long time. “It’s not just about these quaint old books,” he says. “It’s about speakers. It’s about displays and exhibits. It’s about libraries as a center for civic debate.” Imagine, he says, a program sponsored by the local community about how dangerous Walmart is. Some people will object, “This is anti-American. You must be quiet. You can’t talk about that in public spaces.”

“The censoriousness of our time is growing,” LaRue warns. “It’s not just that we say we want to remove books; we don’t want people to voice in public opinions that someone else in the community might dislike.”

Which is why, despite the imprecision of the terms “banned” and “challenged,” I suppose I’m glad we have Banned Books Week. As LaRue argues, it encourages us to reflect on what we’re not discussing.

“Why is it so dangerous to have somebody come in and talk about a religion you don’t know anything about?” he asks. “Why is it so dangerous for someone to say, as we see in many of our challenged books, that there are some people in the world who are not white, straight and heterosexual?”

In such a starkly partisan era, where can we still find common ground?

“The library,” LaRue says.

“Everybody is welcome. Even the books on our shelves may disagree with each other, but there’s a tacit understanding that this is a place where you have the right to investigate the choices and make up your own mind.”

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.