Saturday began the ALA’s annual Banned Books Week, its effort to call attention to censorship and attempts to censor books in the United States. The good news is that the number of challenges (attempts, usually unsuccessful, to restrict or make a book unavailable at an institution–library, school, etc.) has hit its lowest level in 20 years. But last year an LDS author’s work made the top 10 most challenged books for the second year in a row.
I’m not sure that we should be trumpeting that “accomplishment”—creating a work that annoys people isn’t nearly as important as creating a work that is popular, although the two do tend to go hand in hand to a degree. If your book is popular, then its more likely that a few people will think that others need to be protected from your book.
Mormon culture has a tenuous relationship with the concept of censorship and restrictions on books. Almost from the beginning our General Authorities and other leaders have urged us to use caution when choosing what we read and the other entertainment we consume. The issues about what literature is “appropriate” have been the subject of many, many discussions, especially online, in which one side claims some book should not be read, and the other side claims that it should. And books have (so far) been spared the fate of film, which some parts of Mormon Culture have decided must be edited to make it acceptable. The issues are complicated, and I don’t want to re-hash them here or lead anyone to assume that I am overly permissive with what I read. Lets not go there.
What we have to remember is that banned books is NOT about whether or not to read trash. It IS about who gets to tell you what you can read and what you can not. Its one thing to follow the counsel not to see R-rated films, and another to say that others should not be able to see such a film or that the film should not be made. Its one thing to tell your children they can’t read Harry Potter, and another to insist that it not be available in the school library.
Our own LDS culture seems to have a tendency to try to control reading this way. The major LDS bookstore chains limit what they carry to what is “appropriate” (that annoyingly undefined, “I know it when I read it” rule that seems almost universal), and while I certainly think they have a right to restrict what they sell, I have to wonder how much of the motivation is about business and how much is about the kind of enforcement that borders on unrighteous dominion. Fortunately, there are alternatives for distribution, so the impact of these restrictions is significantly mitigated.
Likely, some Mormon parents are among those who call for books to be removed from libraries, schools, etc. I assume they see an evil and feel compelled to act. And I admit that I likely have my limits also. I’m fairly sure I would object to a high school library having a subscription to Playboy. There do have to be limits. But it seems to me that how a community sets those limits is a very important issue. Surely we can find a better way to make decisions than how many parents or customers complain or even what a librarian or bookstore employee understands about a book.
We are fortunate to live at a time when the amount of information about books is increasing, which makes individual choice easier (although the rapidly increasing number of books published means lesser known works don’t have as much information). In today’s environment are stricter limits as necessary as they may have been? Isn’t the better option to put the book on the shelf (virtual or otherwise) and make available as much information about the book as is practical?
I certainly don’t have a clear answer to what limits should be placed and when, but my preference is to err on the side of making things available, with good information for parents and readers to make choices. More than ever we must remember that books also represent our point of view—one that could be seen as something to be protected from. If Harry Potter is challenged, how easy is it to use the same logic to challenge Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books (which made the top 10 in 2009 and 2010) or The Book of Mormon?