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Confronting My Temptation to Ban Books

Protecting the Freedom to Read

We all know that banning books is wrong. So why is it so tempting?

Last month, for the 32nd year, The American Library Association observed Banned Books Week, a celebration of the “freedom to read” and a chance to bring “national attention to the harms of censorship.”

In 2014 in America, you can still find a long list of books that are challenged, protested, and sometimes banned in libraries across the country. So what kinds of books are being challenged? The top 10 from 2013 includes such titles as Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morison, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Banning and burning books have been with us since books began. – Photo: Alan Levine/WikimediaThe main reasons for banned books strike me as not so shocking as banal: offensive language, sex, and material unsuited to certain age groups. I have to admit when I saw this list of potentially “banned books” my first thought was: How quaint. These books pose zero threat to anyone and the basic approach of “Don’t like it? Don’t read it” works perfectly well. The librarians who have had to fend off those silly challenges should get a gold medal for patience as much as for free speech. I mean, The Hunger Games?

But if we’re being honest, don’t we all secretly have a ban wish?

Banned Books Week did get me thinking about the kind of information that I would rather not exist. If I had a magic wand I wouldn’t eliminate The Hunger Games, but I might be tempted to ban recruitment propaganda from ISIS, or books and essays that perpetuate systemic racism, or sexist literature that denigrates women and could incite domestic violence, to name just a few. As someone who is trying to create a better world, it is tempting to want to “ban” the material that I feel leads to radical harm.

Wrestling with these questions led me to reach out to Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. In a phone call with her, Jones agreed that the top 10 list of banned books was not the most pressing issue of Banned Books Week, however she pushed back against my desire to ban anything.

Barbara Jones would rather we think much bigger than ‘banning books’ and instead focus on the freedom to read. And she means the freedom to read almost anything.

“The First Amendment works pretty well. There are limits that include obscenity, child pornography, and material that is harmful to minors; but beyond that there should be as much information as possible.”

Jones went on:

ISIS propaganda should not be prohibited because then we make it very tempting. People are always curious if you ban something. Instead we need to battle that propaganda with better ideas. As Brandeis wrote in Whitney v. California, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Jones shared a story about a program funded with a grant from the NEH called Muslim Journeys, in which 400 libraries were able to get fiction and non-fiction books aimed at increasing understanding and appreciation of Muslim culture within the Muslim community as well as among wider American society. Unfortunately, right-wing activists have referred to it as “Jihadists Recruiting Our Children” and have made attempts at getting those books out of libraries.

This misguided effort crystallizes why all of us should be rallying around Banned Books Week. America can’t afford small thinking in this extraordinarily difficult time. Covering our eyes and hiding a few books will not defeat the problems we face. What we need is creativity, and more expressions of peace, equality and justice conveyed in such a way that they are more compelling and inspiring than those that promote denigration, hatred, and violence.

Barbara Jones told me that libraries are often the most trusted institutions in a community. Referencing the racial protests following the killing of Michael Brown this summer, Jones told me that the library stayed open during the time when the schools were closed. It made me think that instead of banning Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, they might have had a public discussion about it. In doing so, perhaps this book that some would ban would offer to the young men and women of color in Ferguson what books do best, which is help articulate the world for us and make us feel less alone.

Don’t observe Banned Books Week because a few idiots don’t like The Hunger Games, but instead because our very existence as a free, enlightened society rests on the idea of the flow of information coupled with the skills to understand it. If you needed any more proof, the first thing ISIS did in the areas that they control is ban the study of certain subjects in the schools.

The 21st century ultimately does not allow for censorship – people will find what they want to find. Let’s all be part of an effort that helps people find good information, and celebrate the ability and freedom for all of us to read that information and use it for the good of the world.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post Religion on September 22, 2014 in response to the Banned Books Week sponsored by the American Library Association, September 21-27.