Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second. – Phil Kerby
Every year, the last week of September is Banned Books Week, a celebration of intellectual freedom sponsored by the American Library Association. Since I haven’t actually worked as a librarian since 1995 I have a tendency to forget about the event until just after it’s over, but since I didn’t exactly have a venue from which to speak about it in my stripping and escorting days it hardly mattered. Last year I remembered just in time to mention it in “The Camel’s Nose”, published on the very last day of the observance, but this year I was fortunate enough to spot a press release a full week ahead of time, which gave me ample opportunity to write this. I’m usually pretty skeptical of “Official Whatchamacallit Week” type things, but I find the idea of a week specifically dedicated to reading books which busybodies want to stop people from reading to be irresistibly subversive.
As this map indicates, we don’t really have a lot of censorship challenges in Louisiana; even though the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom estimates that only about 20% of all book challenges are reported, the dearth of Louisiana-based incidents is supported by my own experience. Perhaps it’s the same laissez-faire French attitude which renders most South Louisianans unable to get worked up about nudity, or maybe it’s that other libraries there took the same practical approach we did. If anyone came in with a complaint about a book, we simply asked them to fill out a form we had for just such an eventuality; it asked the complainant to fill in the page numbers on which the offending passages occurred, to explain what his complaints about those passages were, and to write a short essay explaining how he felt those passages were objectionable within the context of the book. Only once in my library career did I have to issue such a form, to a group of “holy rollers” from the local fundamentalist church who had got the bright idea that they were going to challenge some book (I honestly can’t remember which). Needless to say, neither form nor complainants ever came back.
Nowadays, the vast majority of censorship attempts are advanced under the “Think of the Children!” banner, and therefore the number of challenges to books in literature curricula and school libraries dwarfs those aimed at other types of libraries; once public libraries are added to that figure what remains is negligible. Since ALA began keeping statistics in 1990, there have been a total of 4048 reported challenges to books assigned for classes, 3659 reported challenges to books in school libraries and 2679 to books in public libraries…and only 798 to all other institutions combined. Here, too, Louisiana tends to be very tolerant; in high school I was assigned many of the books which are frequently challenged or banned, and remember that I was taught by nuns!
The images in this column represent many frequently-banned books; two of them are from ACLU posters which are here in PDF form. The ten most often challenged books of last year, and the excuses would-be censors gave for demanding their banning, were as follows:
1) And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
This children’s book in which two male penguins adopt and hatch out an egg was challenged on grounds of homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and “unsuited to age group”, a clever dodge which allows censors to pretend that they wouldn’t object to the book if it were assigned to children who were older than theirs. Of course, the fact that the excuse is used even in high school challenges exposes it for what it is.
2) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
This semiautobiographical novel about a young Indian who decides to transfer from the reservation school to an all-white high school was challenged on grounds of offensive language, racism, religious viewpoint, sex education, sexual explicitness, violence, and “unsuited to age group”. One noteworthy point: though we tend to think of censorship as the province of so-called “social conservatives” (and indeed, “sexually explicit” and “offensive language” are still the two most frequent excuses), so-called “social liberal” excuses such as violence, racism, sexism and “insensitivity” have become gradually more popular in the last two decades.
3) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
This classic dystopian novel was challenged for reasons of “insensitivity”, offensive language, racism and sexual explicitness; a Missouri challenge from 1980 sniffed that “it makes promiscuous sex look like fun” (your point being?) and in 1993 a California parents group objected that the sexual norms in the fictional culture contradicted the school’s “abstinence only” sex education course.
4) Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
This semiautobiographical novel has been compared favorably to Go Ask Alice (another frequent target of the thought police); it depicts the narrator’s struggle with addiction to crystal methamphetamine and was challenged because of drugs, offensive language, racism and sexual explicitness.
5) The Hunger Games (series), by Suzanne Collins
These novels of a dystopian future were challenged due to sexual explicitness, violence and “unsuited to age group”.
6) Lush, by Natasha Friend
This story of a teenage girl coping with her father’s alcoholism was challenged for drugs, sexual explicitness, offensive language and “unsuited to age group” (because obviously young teenagers never have alcoholic parents).
7) What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
This verse novel of teenage angst was challenged on grounds of sexism, sexual explicitness, and of course “unsuited to age group” because real teenage girls never think of sex until they turn 18; before that they’re innocent, virginal “children”.
8) Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
It’s rare that a nonfiction book makes it into the most-challenged list, but I guess Ehrenreich’s exploration of the plight of the working poor is just too uncomfortable to contemplate for people who think living hand-to-mouth as a waitress or Wal-Mart clerk is preferable to making a good living as a prostitute. The official reasons for challenges were drugs, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint and “inaccuracy” (because obviously the challengers were all economists).
9) Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
It’s a collection of stories by queer youth. Need I say more? Reasons: homosexuality, sexual explicitness. Big surprise.
10) Twilight (series), by Stephanie Meyer
Well, maybe the censors are right once in a while…just kidding! The challenges weren’t based on lack of quality or sparking an inane fad, but because the books are sexually explicit, promote a religious viewpoint, feature violence and (all together now) are “unsuited to age group”. I wonder if any of the censors would feel differently if they realized these books are actually abstinence propaganda?
I haven’t read any of these books except for Brave New World, and therefore can’t vouch for their quality. But that never stops censors; few of them bother to read works before trying to ban them, which is why our little complaint form stopped them cold. They just complain about the presence of certain “dirty” words or passages without making the least attempt to judge the work as a whole, and many of them don’t even go that far; they simply parrot the complaints of others in their club, church or other social group.
It’s bad enough when parents censor their own kids’ reading; though I have many complaints about my mother’s overprotectiveness I must give her credit for never, ever censoring our reading material. When a public librarian once tried to stop me from taking out adult books (I was eleven if I recall correctly) my mother left standing instructions that I was to be allowed to read and borrow anything I liked, without restriction. But far too many parents go in exactly the opposite direction; they not only want to restrict the intellectual freedom of their own children, but that of other people’s children as well. And while I don’t think society should interfere in a parent’s child-rearing decisions (and censorship only encourages the kids to read the forbidden material anyhow), campaigning to restrict the personal rights of others to do as they like because it offends one’s own sense of morality or propriety is totally unacceptable in a free society.
One Year Ago Today
“Out of Control” discusses the dangers posed by unbridled male sexual impulses and points out that current American laws sabotage the mechanisms evolved by society to channel those impulses.