Your Humble Blogger was in the library yesterday, not the local small-town library but the library at the somewhat-bigger town fifteen miles away, the library with the surprisingly good CD selection (this week: the 2-disc beautifully remastered All Things Must Pass, a four-disc Complete RCA/Victor Louis Armstrong, and a few others), and I happened to see that they were giving away buttons for Banned Book week. They were largish buttons with big clear letters reading “I READ BANNED BOOKS”. I thought to myself, “do I?”
See, I had looked at the ALA list of last year’s most challenged books, and I have read ... well, I’ve read The Chocolate War, and I’ve read one of the Captain Underpants books, and I’ve read and admired In the Night Kitchen. I think that’s it. Yes, I’ve never read Of Mice and Men or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’ve never read Mr. Bellesiles’s’s dodgy history tome. I’ve never even heard of the others.
I assume this is because most attempts to remove books from libraries occur at middle-school libraries which have already used their discretion to leave out Delta of Venus or Tutored in Lust (both of which I have read). I don’t know if the library that was handing out the buttons stocks those books. I can’t say I would blame them if they didn’t. Are they banned? Are, let’s see, the Turner Diaries banned from school libraries, or should they be? If I walked up to my nice librarian and shoved a copy of My Struggle at her along with her button, would she be all happy and stuff? Those books aren’t challenged, because they aren’t on the shelves to challenge. They will never make the list.
I mean, I read banned books, or at least I read books without worrying about whether they’ve been banned. I don’t have a problem with a certain amount of discretion on the part of the librarians, though. I would prefer that the Turner Diaries not be in the middle-school library. That’s my preference, and I suspect that if the middle-school librarian preferred to have it on the shelf, I would listen to her reasoning and let the matter go. It’s only a book, after all. I do think that we should fund libraries for adults, and perhaps we should make it a condition of removing a book from a children’s library that it must be in the stacks of the adult library, so a child who is denied the opportunity to read a banned book at school may do so with a parent at home. But in fact, the really unpopular books, the real fringe stuff, isn’t at the grown-library library either, and nobody cares.
No, the reason people get worked up over Banned Book Week is that the most frequently challenged books are right plumb spang in the mainstream. Or perhaps just slightly off to one side, like Heather Has Two Mommies, still a long way from shore. When the ALA and all us libs defend the books on that list, we may well think that we are defending them simply because we are against banning books, but really we think it’s stupid and annoying to ban these books. It’s counter-productive to ban the Harry Potter books, it’s dumb to ban the Captain Underpants books, and it’s just crazy to ban In the Night Kitchen. I am against removing books from the library just for “offensive language” or “sexual content” and certainly for “modeling bad behavior” or “homosexuality”, and I just can’t see “occult themes” as being a big problem.
The top reasons for challenges (according to the ALA) are ... well, let’s take ’em one at a time. The most frequent challenge was to ... survey says ... “sexually explicit” material. OK. I would not ban all sexually explicit material, even from a children’s library, depending on what constitutes “explicit”, but then there are some books I would keep out of a school library simply because of their sexually explicit nature. It’s a librarian’s call, with presumably input from teachers and parents.
Second ... “offensive language”. That’s right out. I mean, I don’t know that I would shelve Jesus Fuck, Charlie Brown! in with the board books, but I doubt that any book that I would want in the library otherwise would be ruled out by “offensive language”.
Third ... “Unsuited to age group”. Ding ding ding! I think it’s a good idea to suit books to the readers, and I think that’s an important part of the librarian’s job. A good reason to challenge a book, or in nicer language to bring it to the librarian’s attention.
Fourth: is the silliness about the occult. I would allow these books, and I think any parent who wouldn’t is kidding himself. Or herself. Or being kidded by somebody. Fifth is violence, and I wouldn’t toss out any book just because it was violent. Or how about a rule that says anything more violent than Mother Goose is out; that’ll keep the pile nice and small. Sixth is promoting homosexuality, which I’m for, so that’s out. Seventh is promoting a “religious viewpoint”, which I can understand is a bit of a church/state issue, but seems way down on that list. Then there’s nudity (woo-hoo!), and some others such as anti-family (my family can stand up to that, thanks).
Then there’s racism, which is a tough nut to crack. On the whole, in a middle-school library, I’d feel reasonably comfortable with the exclusion of truly racist texts. On the other hand, I’d want the library to be reluctant to use that exclusion. I wouldn’t want them to feel they had to guarantee that all the books on the shelves were free of taint. Some judgment is called for; I’d rather have a professional make that judgment.
So, what’s my point? Mostly that it’s more complicated than it looks (shock! surprise! alarm!), and that really in defending the “banned books”, we are and should be defending children having a positive attitude toward sex, romance (including homosexual romance), the occult, bad behavior, and a religious viewpoint. I think the ALA is being misleading if not outright dishonest in pretending that it is defending “banned books”. It is defending a positive attitude toward sex, romance (including homosexual romance), the occult, bad behavior, and a religious viewpoint. It is also, as it should be, against certain pressure groups who want to take the filtering job out of the hands of librarians and do it themselves. These groups want to narrow the main stream, and librarians, on the whole, like it as wide as it is. They present themselves as against banning books, and their opponents as in favor of banning books, and you know what? It’s more complicated than that.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,