Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
The honor “Banned Book” does for a book what a leather jacket did for James Dean. Before it was handsome, now it’s handsome with a vaguely rebellious air.
For those opposed to a particular book, attempting to ban it may seem a sensible way to ensure that others (namely: young people) are not exposed to the offending volume’s troublesome content. Frankly, attempting to ban a book is at best a foolish strategy and at worst a farcical counterproductive strategy if one genuinely does not want a book to be read.
While books get challenged in school districts or at local libraries with disturbing frequency, the week of September 22 through 28 is when this issue is given a more public platform thanks to Banned Books Week. Across the country libraries and bookstores put together all manner of displays to highlight the texts that have been challenged and banned, whilst passionate book lovers can show their support not only by reading these banned books but by picking up all manner of buttons, shirts and tote bags that boldly declare to one and all: “I Read Banned Books.” As an event to engage attention and emotion around issues of freedom of speech, freedom to read, and the dangers of censorship, Banned Books Week (and the various organizations and task forces that work on these issues year round) perform a vital service. After all, a book (taken as a purely physical object) cannot do terribly much to defend itself.
Yet when one looks at the tables of the “most frequently banned” books, or glances at the lists of the year’s “most challenged” books, the initial rush of righteous indignation (“really!? Somebody tried to ban that!?”) subsides amidst the reassuring sight that the attempt to ban a title has brought it extra prominence. When a book finds its way onto the “challenged/banned” list it gets a boost of publicity more ingenious than any marketing campaign, and even if those who pick it up are not the ones who would have their preconceived notions challenged by the text…at least people are reading it. All of which is a long way of saying that while Banned Books Week is great and important, those who support it (readers, librarians, fans of free speech, critical thinkers, educators, perhaps you, etc…) need to take a more critical stance in asking what does it mean to fight against the banning of books.
For every library, librarian, or group of students who galvanizes their peers and community around the threat of censorship there is another group trying desperately to fight against a far more insidious attempt at banning books one that is potentially much more dangerous: budget cuts. And those fighting budget cuts win less frequently than those fighting bans on particular books. While those slashing library budgets may not couch their proposed cuts in a panicked moralizing about the dangers of a particular text, those wielding the budgetary hatchets do far graver danger to the freedom to read than the person who was offended by “age inappropriate” material (thereby ensuring that those of that age flock to the book to determine what all of the “inappropriate” fuss was about). After all, before somebody can be offended by a book, they had to have access to that book in the first place, and in the cases where a given book is ripped out of a school’s curriculum those who are now more curious about the title need a way to find it and read it so that they can determine for themselves whether the book was worth reading.
It is a shame, and more than slightly discombobulating, when one hears that a book is being “challenged” or “banned” somewhere in the country and it is wonderful when the specter of censorship is confronted by engaged readers; however, in order to seriously take on the threat of books being banned those who care need to connect the struggle around a few specific books with the larger issues around the freedom to read in general. The community solidarity and energy that springs up to fight for a given book is inspiring, but the threat to the freedom to read is not (or not only) a handful of offended individuals writing angry letters but the groups of officials who calmly slash library hours or funding. There is no better way to ensure that a library will not acquire any new “offensive” titles than to cut a library’s budget so that they cannot purchase any new books.
Granted, the above comments deploy some willful hyperbole in suggesting that those trimming library budgets are as bad as the censors; however, if our concern is the long term vitality of libraries and the long term development of serious readers it behooves us to consider the following question: what poses a graver danger, the “challenge” to a particular book, or the budget cut? Many a challenge dissolves once it is exposed to sufficient logic, yet the perniciousness of budget cuts is that the blade used is not without a certain cold logic that makes it harder to counter than one person’s emotional fervor.
The success of Banned Books Week is a testament to people’s willingness to stand up for books as well as for the freedom to read but the week always needs to be viewed in context. A smattering of individuals will always be offended by a particular title, especially if they go in wanting to be outraged, but in the grander scheme which is the larger outrage the challenge against Captain Underpants or the move that ensures local libraries will not be able to buy any more copies of that book due to budget cuts?
It is essential in a democratic society to stand up for the rights of all to have the freedom to read; however, this right is inextricably bound up with people having equitable access to reading materials. After all, a library that has been shuttered by budget cuts will have a hard time assembling an eye catching book display for Banned Books Week.
Read banned books, join the fight whenever you hear that a book has been challenged (even if you don’t care about that specific book), and read (and share) the books that would be challenged if those who are so easily offended bothered to read more widely. But do not forget that the most dangerous censoring forces of today are not the ones challenging a book here or a book there, they are the ones shutting off the lights and cutting off the budgets to the spaces where people can be delighted, inspired, or shocked by the contents of a vast assortment of reading materials.
A community with a closed library is one in which every book has been banned.