By Liz Merton
October 6, 2020
So last week (September 27 to October 3) was this year’s banned-books week. Dating to 1982, Banned Books Week considers the issue of challenges to books (for example, in libraries and at schools). You can learn more at the Banned Books Week website. Given the significance of publishing, of access to information, of freedom of expression, I couldn’t help but give these issues some thought and jot out a quick note for Read Local®.
First, no matter what side you fall on when it comes to the issue of access to books on controversial topics, I think getting back to fundamentals helps shape the discussion. In the U.S.A., at least for now, the First Amendment does a pretty darn good job of ensuring that publishers can publish whatever they want. A private individual or company can publish almost any kind of book they want to publish. Exceptions exist. You can’t publish a collection of child pornography. But these narrow exceptions fall beyond the scope of this short piece. Essentially, no censor is going to jump out of the bushes and force you to change language in a book or remove a “disturbing” topic. You won’t face civil or criminal penalties for publishing an unpopular story.
Rather, the issue of “banned books” in the U.S. revolves around complaints about books bought by libraries (using tax dollars) or made accessible in public schools (tax dollars), or marked as required reading in public schools. Again, exceptions exist, but generally, American book challenges boil down to tax money paying for the book, or the government (through public schools) requiring kids to read the book.
The government hasn’t said that someone cannot read these “banned books.” It hasn’t interfered with the publication of these books. We’ve got a Bill of Rights to address those concerns. Where the problem arises is “concerned citizens” questioning the use of their tax dollars or the education of their kids. Maybe these people do not want their local library’s budget going to pay for X book. Maybe they don’t want their fifth grader to have to read X book for school.
This aspect of the problem makes it far more complicated. If the government banned publication of a book, the issue would (for most people reared in a liberal democracy) be a pretty simple one, I’m thinking. But the issue just isn’t that simple. Take And Tango Makes Three, number ten on the 2019 Banned Books Week list of challenged books. This picture book for preschoolers and kindergartners focuses on two male penguins who want to form a nontraditional family. Like many in the online writing community have opined, I don’t think my head will explode if I read this book. (Nor do I think a little kid’s head would explode.) But what if a high-school teacher (at a public school) wanted to make Charles Rice’s 50 Questions on the Natural Law required reading? The book presents an “accessible discussion” of Catholic teachings on natural law and social issues.
Everybody has their opinions about how we should order society. In a diverse, liberal democracy—with only a few agreed-upon governing or foundational principals—it gets pretty hard to say what’s in and what’s out. (We can save a debate on relativism and positivism for another day.) While a banned-books list sheds some light on the issues that are controversial for the country (and which issues garner the attention of “activist taxpayers”), I just don’t think it says as much about “banning books” as some people suggest because I’m guessing, in certain circumstances, most of us (if we were being completely honest) would have an issue with our kids being forced to read certain books or with our tax money going to pay for certain books. Maybe not. . . . Maybe there are taxpayers and parents out there who would truly be open to anything.
Maybe we are just a revolutionary people. Likely most of us feel pretty committed to “raging against the man” in the right circumstances. It’s just that no one agrees on who “the man” is, what the “right circumstances” are, and how best to “rage.” Anyway, I have found some value in pondering “banned books” over the last week.