I’m a little nervous to write this post because it seems like anyone who dares to utter the words “book banning” in anything but the most stridently negative tones is labeled a censor and summarily dismissed. So before you bombard me with outraged comments, let me just say that this post is not about banning Harry Potter from school libraries or banishing books with sexually explicit material from the YA section. The vast majority of efforts to ban books from school and public libraries are born out of a combination of prudery and ignorance, such as thinking that The Satanic Verses is a handbook for Satanists or that Animal Farm will turn kiddies into commies.
The purpose of this post is, first of all, to suss out what it really means to ban a book and try to clarify the difference between what I call active and passive banning. Second, I want to present you with a few extreme scenarios intended to test the limits of your commitment to anti-censorship. Essentially, I’m going to push your buttons a little bit and ask some tough questions.
Defining the Term “Banned Book”
I want to make it clear at the outset that I do not believe any book, no matter how vile, should ever be banned from self-publication. That would be a direct violation of the first amendment and an assault on democracy.
When I speak of banned books, I am specifically referring to one of two things: books that are banned from specific public libraries or books that are banned from school libraries. I think it is important to distinguish between the two since public and school libraries perform different functions in the community.
There is also the issue of books banned from certain retail outlets. I view this as a separate issue since retail outlets are privately owned, whereas libraries are public institutions supported by taxpayers. Therefore, I will not be addressing retail banning in this post.
Active vs. Passive Book Banning
When we talk about banned books, we are usually referring to books whose presence on library shelves has been challenged. But here’s the thing: no library can hold all the books in the world. Each library makes subjective value judgments when choosing which books to add to its collection and which books to leave out.
In 2006, the Anti-Defamation League asked the Brooklyn Public Library to remove a Russian book from its collection. The thesis of Anti-Einstein, as its title translates to in English, is anti-semitic. The Brooklyn Public Library’s Material Reviews Committee responded to the removal request by essentially agreeing with the ADL’s assessment of the book’s anti-semitic message and then stating that “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Anti-Einstein stayed on the shelf.Is it ever okay to ban books? Join the discussion and chime in with your thoughts!Click To Tweet
While the idea of such a hateful book sitting on a library shelf, just waiting to be checked out by some neo-Nazi thug makes me cringe a bit, I don’t think the library’s choice to retain the book was wrong. But I have to ask, why did they add a blatantly anti-semitic book to the collection in the first place? Was it really the best use of taxpayer dollars? I’m sure there are millions of other Russian language books that have literary value and don’t promote antisemitism. Is including obvious hate speech necessary to a well-rounded collection?
In her letter to the ADL, the chair of the BPL’s Materials Review Committee stated that “librarians have a professional responsibility to be inclusive, not exclusive, in collection development.” For its part, the assistant director of the ADL wrote, “the best response to bad speech is not censorship, but good speech. However, the First Amendment carries certain obligations with it. The primary obligation of responsible citizens and organizations is to speak out and to condemn bigotry… Haters may have the right to express their hate, but that hate should not go unchallenged.”
It’s hard to find fault with the ADL’s position. I’m not saying that libraries should toss out all the books that promote racism, misogyny, ableism, ageism, etc. (for example, I do think that Mein Kampf has some historical value), but I think there are cases, like this one, that demonstrate a need for more prudence in the acquirement of library materials.
Is It Ever Okay to Ban a Book?
A few years ago there was a big kerfuffle when Amazon listed a book entitled The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure. (More disturbing than the fact that they listed it in the first place was that it briefly appeared near the top of Amazon’s top 100 Kindle bestsellers list.) Amazon initially defended the decision to list the book, then removed it after protests and boycotting, and finally, the idiot who wrote it was arrested.
This horrifying book was self-published, and, I believe, only available as an ebook. And even if it had been available as a hard copy, I strongly doubt it could have ever wormed its way into any public library in this country. But let’s suspend incredulity for a moment and imagine that you spotted a handbook for pedos sitting on an obscure back shelf in your public library. Would you challenge it?
Now, let’s say you run across a book that openly calls for the oppression of an ethnic or racial minority. Or argues that America should bring back slavery. Or a book that says women deserve to be raped. Or claims that the Holocaust never happened. Because there are books that say exactly those things in American public libraries. Hell, just pick up any old book by Ann Coulter and you’re bound to find some no-so-cleverly disguised pro-genocide rant. Would you challenge a book like that?
I’m not saying we should ban these sorts of books. The slippery slope is real and I am truly thankful that libraries take measures to make sure books are not censored. But I have to ask, where do we draw the line between acceptable free speech and doing violence with words? And how do we apply that specifically to the cultivation of diverse library collections? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do think we need to seriously engage with this issue, especially in a time when hate seems to be making a comeback in America.
What do you think? Are there any circumstances under which a book should be banned from a public library? Sound off in the comments section below!