Dear Slate: Banned Books Week Isn’t a “Crock”

Here’s a story about how one library system became two: in the enlightened 1990s, parents in a rural Georgia community protested the inclusion of Heather Has Two Mommies in the public library collection.

This was before my day. Libraries in one system still have books that bear barcodes from the old system, though, and the story comes up when you ask. The complaints were not original. You know the refrain. It is obscene. It is transgressive. It promotes families that do not look the way that our family looks.

So patrons made their noise, the community was divided by it, and, in the end, the solution offered was that the system would break apart. The “new” system would not carry the book, and the old system would. Those unhappy that the book was still stocked could visit libraries in the new system; those who wanted the book could visit the old.

According to a piece running in Slate this banned book week: in my story, the book still won. It remained available in select libraries, and even if it’s not in your neighborhood library, “there has been no time in history where it’s easier for you to read it anyway”. Buy it on Amazon for a penny plus shipping. Travel the extra ten or twenty miles to the library that does carry it. ILL it. It hasn’t been taken away; what are you complaining about?

I’d like to suggest an alternative to Ms. Graham’s conclusion. When books are challenged, even when the result is not a full ban!, nobody wins.

Consider that libraries aren’t there to shrug and suggest Amazon when you’re looking for a book. They’re there to provide the books, not only to those who can’t afford to purchase all of their reading material, or are unable to drive to the next nearest library, but to anybody with an interest.

Libraries are a marketplace of ideas, and if they’re going to operate in a truly democratic fashion, all ideas should be represented.

A second point: librarians should be particularly diligent about insuring that the voices of those at the margins are present on our shelves–and about presenting them as equal ideas. Many have noted that frequently challenged books belong to such voices.

It’s Toni Morrison exposing the horrors of slavery, a girl with LGBT parents finding her way in the world, Muslim Americans, Native Americans, and girls killed in the Shoah who face push-back, not the gentlemen of the canon. “Obscene” and “pornographic” become filler words to disguise the reality that these just aren’t experiences that we want to look at.

Shoving a replacement book into a child’s hand because their parent doesn’t want them to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks may quiet them, but it’s not a “win” for the book. It’s not even a “win” for the child, who now is freed from examining medical ethics and individual liberty. It makes everyone smaller. It renders our conversations less nuanced. One less reader after a parent protest is an inherent loss.

“Better than before” seems to me an inadequate measuring stick when we’re discussing the availability of books, particularly in our schools and libraries. Sure, there are always ways to get your hands on literature once deemed “obscene.” Still, challenges of any sort, no matter their result, remain a serious issue. I fail to see what’s “quirky” or “charming” about revolting against ideas we don’t agree with, or to take any comfort in even minor capitulations.

Relocating a YA novel to the adult section because parents complain that its themes are subversive isn’t tantamount to a pyre, but it still comes across to a young adult, whose very being is thus categorically rendered different, as a value judgement. Consequences are quieter now. They’re still very real.

I want all readers and seekers to have the same access to books that I was privileged enough to have growing up: total. I want them to be able to read about what it’s like to grow up not WASPy, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and wealthy. Those aren’t the experiences of all Americans. Those aren’t the only voices worth hearing. Reading only about people our parents and pastors are comfortable with isn’t an education, it’s an echo-chamber.

We’re facing a lot of really pressing social issues right now. Topics like immigration, marriage, and racism still roil in our political discussions, and when we’re approaching them, it helps to have a full picture of their implications. Books are a way in. In communities where it’s not comfortable or common to be the odd family out, they may be some people’s only way in.

In many areas, Anne Frank may be the only Jewish girl a child ever encounters. There’s a real human cost to excluding her from curricula, or to offering an alternate choice, because a parent found her diary “pornographic.” In areas where the causes of the Civil War are still debated, Toni Morrison’s Beloved may be one of the few opportunities students have to confront the horrors of slavery. Selecting another title because a parent finds its language “racist” or its scenes “distasteful” inhibits our ability to interact intelligently with history.

Some girls have two mommies. While we’re getting incrementally better about accepting that their families are loving and healthy and like ours in every way that matters, those girls are still going to deal with a lot of nonsense from people who can’t think past the status quo. It helps to have a story that they can identify with available to them. There’s a real human cost to making it less available, or differently available.

As a intentionally well-rounded reader–as a woman who got to where she is, as a feminist, as an LGBT ally, as someone who believes in racial justice, through books–I’m startled by the myopic suggestion that the “books have won” simply because there’s still access for some of us.

Yes, I’ve had access, and yes, it’s been the historically unprecedented kind. But I also have an Ivy League degree and a middle-class background. I never had to beg for a book. I was never told “no.” My parents never monitored my reading.  Without those privileges, I have to recognize that I might have been the girl with the alternate, safe reading list, and the nice, sanitized view of the world, who could very well grow up to think (and vote) in a self-consciously tailored manner.

The books never win when people say “no” to them.

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