Every year, the American Library Association, pious lover of books, freedom, and openness to sharing absolutely all ideas regardless of their content (unless you live in Cuba or your particular set of crazy ideas doesn’t follow rigid leftist doctrine), runs a weeklong event called “Banned Books Week,” along with some other sponsors. During this seven-day festival of self-righteousness, librarians across the country posture as opponents of censorship.
In reality, of course, they’re not fighting censorship at all. They can’t, because censorship doesn’t exist in this country. Any book can be published, any book can be sold. There are no “banned books.” The ALA is actually fighting parents, many of whom have the temerity to request changes to their school curricula or even, in the worst cases, ask their communities to make it slightly more difficult for children to access certain books that, in the parents’ opinion, could cause harm to those children. Access will not be denied, of course: again, censorship, the actual suppression of speech such that it cannot be heard, does not exist* in this country, and has been repeatedly ruled unconstitutional in a variety of contexts.
“Libraries Against Parenting”, however, lacks the same popular appeal as “Banned Books Week”, so America’s librarians construct an elaborate fantasy in which any attempt whatsoever to require or merely encourage a library to act in loco parentis (like any other responsible adult member of the community) is, through some arcane ritual of linguistic alchemy, a form of “censorship.” Indeed, the ALA is either unwilling or unable to draw any moral or practical distinction between a few powerless parents asking libraries to put books with significant adult content in the adult section and public burnings, official sanctions, and credible threats of violence against authors [scroll to “Aylisli, Akram”]. Indeed, the ALA’s “heroes” for this year do not appear to find any distinction between book challenges and literal Nazism. This is dogma substituting for reason.
The ALA and its cohort are also waging a propaganda war against taxpayers. The problem, you see, is not any actual censorship — since, again, the actual banning of books is legally and culturally unthinkable in this country. The problem is that there are some works of art — indeed, even, some ideas! — which the taxpaying public in our putative democracy is perfectly fine with permitting, but which they do not wish to subsidize. It is not unreasonable for them to oppose such subsidies. Libraries are publicly funded because they ultimately benefit the public, by providing us with an educated, humane, and happy citizenry. Works that do not tend to promote an educated, humane, and happy citizenry don’t need to be (in fact, should not be) carried by libraries. Libraries can and should discriminate against them.
This sounds much more controversial than it is. Your local public library has at least three copies of every Harry Potter book. (My local system has 21 copies of Chamber of Secrets.) Your local elementary school library has a copy of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. I don’t care who you are or what state you’re from: those sentences are true. However, how many copies of the 1916 Chicago phone book does your public library have? (Not even Chicago’s libraries carry phone books that old.) How many copies of 50 Shades of Gray are stocked in your nearest K-6 grammar school? What about Enrico Rodrigo’s excellent The Physics of Stargates, a solid text for introducing college-level liberal arts majors to modern wormhole physics? How about the infamous Anarchist Cookbook? I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess zero. (Especially that last one, in a post-Columbine world.) The plain fact is that librarians, both school and public, have limited resources, so they use their substantial powers of intelligence and discretion to pursue donations and purchases that actually serve their readers — in other words, they massively discriminate, ignoring 99.99% of all books that have ever been published in favor of the 0.01% of books which, in their opinions as library professionals, serve the goals of the public or school library where they work.
If they did this with their own private money, there is nothing the public could do if it decided that, sometimes, the librarians picked the wrong books. But, of course, public and school libraries don’t rely exclusively on private funding; they rely, in very large part, on the income we give them through taxation. In a normal, healthy, functioning democracy, our involvement in keeping libraries alive would give us some say in what libraries do with the money we give them. “Banned Books Week” is largely designed to lock us out of the process, so that librarians can continue to discriminate against and in favor of whatever books suit their judgement, without taking ours into consideration.
But “Librarians Against Accountability Week” lacks persuasive power. Thus, when Arizona voters announced, through their elected officials, that they wanted their public school system to teach their children “to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races” (which, in turn, led to the suspension of a popular Mexican-American studies program which, according to the Superintendent of Schools, did exactly the opposite), the ALA jumped through some extraordinary mental hoops in order to construe it as — you guessed it — censorship, despite the fact that the law neither targeted individual books nor banned any of them from Tucson school libraries or curricula. (Some books were removed and stored or sold simply because the classes that used them no longer existed. Despite shoddy reporting, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Howard Zinn’s bibliography remain readily available throughout Tucson.) In the ALA’s strange world, it’s not enough for racial hatred to be available on bookshelves in stores, public libraries, and even school libraries; nay, unless actively teaching it, the ALA officially maintains, you’re attacking the “freedom to read.” Of course, the ALA’s opposition to “purging” and “limiting” certain books on the basis of “doctrinal disapproval” does not appear to extend to books that question ALA’s own doctrines. Those can be purged without ALA or Banned Books Week emitting a peep.
None of this is why I hate Banned Books Week.
The story of public servants scrabbling for money and power while imagining themselves noble warriors for liberty and goodness is probably as old as democratic government. As abuses of power go, the ALA’s annual public relations / fundraising scheme has relatively pure motives and is blessedly free of cynical self-awareness. The effect is very slight; the ALA’s disapprobation simply doesn’t have very much effect on the real world. Most schools and districts do listen to their stakeholders, and many have formal processes in place for reviewing book choices at the prompting of their communities.
More importantly, the intent is not entirely misguided. The vast majority of the books featured in “Banned” Books Week really oughtn’t be challenged; students are, generally speaking, being assigned appropriate books at appropriate grade levels. A brief review of the annual “Banned” Books report illustrates this. If you, as a parent, believe your twelfth-grader can’t, under a teacher’s guidance, read the sex scene in The Handmaid’s Tale without being seriously harmed, then you’ve made some mistakes as a parent. The ALA calls out these over-protective parents during “Banned” Books Week, and that’s not really a bad thing.
(SIDE NOTE: The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. I would never use it in an AP course. But that’s because it is a clunking, didactic, trope-driven literary failure, not because of the sex scene, which is as far from erotica as Watchmen is from Christopher Reeves’ Superman movies.)
Occasionally, the ALA even raises awareness of genuine censorship overseas. Fighting actual censorship is a good thing, whether it’s the aforementioned Azerbaijani author Akram Ayisli, or Manji Irshad’s book about Islam and Liberty that was banned in Malaysia, or the continuing lawsuit in Belgium that aims to ban the classic Tintin in the Congo, or those Cuban dissidents imprisoned for trying to share ideas about… oh, wait, skip that last one! But these are never the marquee topics of Banned Books Week, which tries desperately to focus on instances of American “book bannings” (which do not exist).
So, yes, the ALA and its allies are making a huge effort to complain about the fact that some parents in some places don’t want their children to have instant, maximally convenient access to — or be forced to read as part of a curriculum — certain books. Yes, their pretension that they are in a fight against actual censorship is pretty much a lie — and a lucrative one, at that, given Banned Books Week’s success at raising money for them. But, in the grand scheme of things, the ALA’s mild hypocrisy and dishonest self-portrayal are pretty minor sins in a country where much bigger lies are being told every day.
Despite all that, I hate Banned Books Week. Not because of the magnitude of the lies, but because of the people who are telling them.
Librarians belong to one of the most noble professions. I write computer code for money; they are stewards of knowledge, enkindlers of humane passions, and guardians of the rational logos. A single library is more of a treasure trove than all the gold in Crystal Cove — a storehouse of truth, or at least the pursuit of truth. Librarians have a special duty, then, to tell the truth, even about themselves. They must be honest, sincere, and neutral guides whenever they are drawn into disputes in their professional capacity. Otherwise, they’re not librarians, but barbarians — not stewards of information, but vandals who control and manipulate it.
For seven days out of every year, that’s exactly what librarians across the nation become. I expect manipulation, politicking, power-seeking, and narcissistic fundraising scams from, say, politicians. I expect much more from my librarians. I held this post over until Sunday so as to avoid interrupting this year’s festivities, because nobody likes a party pooper. But today is the first day of my annual hoping that, by this time next year, librarians will have come to their senses, smacked “Banned” Books Week with the banhammer, and firmly resolved to work with parents and taxpayers to determine what books our public libraries should present (and how), rather than engaging in a long propagandistic power struggle that benefits no one but the ALA’s accounting department.
*It must be admitted that, technically, under U.S. law, it is theoretically possible to suppress hardcore pornography, which is, according to some people, a form of expression, not a form of abuse. However, the standard of evidence for proving “hardcore pornography” is so high that the only porn that is actually suppressed in the U.S. is child pornography. Hardcore porn is freely and openly sold in stores, on cable, in hotel rooms, and is responsible for a sizable portion of all internet data traffic. Censorship does not exist in the United States.
DISCLAIMER: My wife, an aspiring librarian, has not read this post, and, having heard the topic, notes that she “expects to be offended” by it. If she writes a counterpoint, I will, of course, publish it.