When Suzanne Nossel came to PEN America in 2013, the free-speech organization’s long-standing participation in Banned Books Week struck her as slightly out of step with the times.
Almost every day we see a new story about conservatives attempting to stigmatize or outright remove a growing list of books from school or public libraries. A few examples from this latest front in America’s endless and exhausting culture war:
In southwest Florida, Collier County public schools slapped a warning sticker on 110 books — including the literary classics “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou.
In Utah’s largest school district, officials yanked more than 50 books, many about gender and gay issues, from library shelves recently after parents complained they were unsuitable. (“We’ve not had a book burning or anything,” a district spokesman told the Salt Lake Tribune, noting that some books could be returned after further consideration. “But we are being proactive with the ones we’ve heard concerns about.”)
And in Llano, Tex., a single complaint from a resident about books on sexuality, gender and race (“pornographic filth,” she charged) in the public library’s section for young readers prompted a purge of texts ranging from Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s acclaimed “Between the World and Me.” This set off an uproar after which officials dissolved the library board, closed meetings to the public and fired a librarian who had objected.
Walking last week through a New-York Historical Society exhibit, “A Century of Defending the Written Word,” related to PEN America’s centennial, I was struck by one photograph in particular: a disturbing black-and-white image of books being destroyed in a large bonfire in 1933 Berlin as a bystander raised his arm in a Nazi salute.
I asked Nossel to put what’s happening now in historical context. Have we been here before?
She replied that there certainly are global comparisons, as that Berlin photo suggests, but to her knowledge it hasn’t happened at this level of intensity and scope in the United States.
“What has reared its head now is a systematic effort to wage the political war and the culture war by using our schools and libraries as a battleground,” she said. Pointing out a pile of books in the exhibit that have been banned or threatened over the years — from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Maia Kobabe’s memoir, “Gender Queer,” a particular target these days in school libraries — co-curator Bridget Colman noted that this was only a tiny representation. “The whole case could be filled up with banned books.”
What can Americans who cherish free expression do?
Markus Dohle, chief executive of Penguin Random House, who grew up in postwar Germany and has worked in repressive societies in Europe and Asia, is making a personal donation of $500,000 to combat widespread book banning in the United States. “It’s unimaginable,” he told the New York Times about what he sees happening today. “And it is very urgent, and it ties into the future of our democracy.”
Most of us can’t come up with half a million bucks, but even small donations to organizations such as PEN, the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship can help with efforts to raise public awareness and mount legislative or legal challenges.
For those who live in regions, mostly in red states, where the bans are happening, it’s important to express dissent publicly and to get organized about pushing back.
“The most potent voices are the local voices,” Nossel told me.
So local residents should show up at school board meetings to express dissent publicly, get in touch directly with school administrators to insist that established procedures be followed before summarily removing books from shelves, and let state and local legislators know of their opposition.
They can also write letters to the editor or op-ed articles for the local newspaper, or post on social media in support of free expression and in opposition to bans or labeling. Sometimes more extreme measures are called for: In the Llano situation described above, a citizens group has sued the county on First Amendment grounds.
“People need to mobilize, because the efforts to ban books are very active and very organized,” Nossel said.
It’s also important to keep in mind — and raise your voice to say — that book bans run counter to a core tenet of what America is supposed to stand for.
So if you’re worried about threats to democracy involving voting rights, gerrymandering and the peaceful transfer of power after elections, you should save a little mental space for this, too.
Opposing censorship in the form of book banning is a part of the same crucial fight.