Banned Books Week

9.28.11 | | 13 comments

0-bbw_border_467x174Saturday 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?

13 comments: “Banned Books Week

  1. Sarah Dunster

    “I’m fairly sure I would object to a high school library having a subscription to Playboy. ”

    So you do agree that banning is appropriate, especially when we are discussing persons not of legal age?

    Maybe the line is different for different parents. What is completely cut-and-dried objectionable to one person, is not for another. In fact, playboy is a great example of “I know it when I see it.”
    I see this discussion almost as sophistry… meaning, it can never really come to any effective conclusion. Because one person will say, “no banning,” while there are definitely some things that he/she would object to. And others will say, “banning is appropriate in _____ circumstances….

    I for one say that banning is simply not effective, and is therefore counterproductive in the sense that we shouldn’t be focusing our energy there, but instead, on educating our children about what is right/good and helping them to make wise reading choices.

  2. Moriah Jovan

    As for the Playboy-in-a-high-school-library argument, the one I would use (could I be arsed to use it) is that it’s an inefficient use of limited funds for the purpose of building a collection.

    But it’s not like any librarian worth her salt is going to think that’s a good way to spend money, so perhaps a better example would be if a high school library stocked all the major religious sacred texts, including a Book of Mormon, and varying religions got up in arms about *everyone else’s* sacred texts.

  3. Jonathan Langford

    I agree with Moriah. It doesn’t really count as censorship unless it’s an attempt to ban something that otherwise meets the parameters of what an institution would stock.

    Which makes the LDS bookstores example kind of tricky. Given the niche market that LDS bookstores occupy, it probably makes good business sense for them not to stock anything edgy. On the other hand, the case of a VP at BYU overriding the BYU Bookstore’s decision to stock No Going Back probably does count as book banning, by that criterion–though maybe not, since the “censorship” was internal to the sponsoring institution.

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    Th., I haven’t forgotten — my post about it is here. But, we should also point out that the Study in Scarlet case can be seen as somewhat ambiguous, as we learned when Jim Stern, a member of the county review committee, responded in the comments.

    I agree with Sarah, that educating the children should be the focus — and that is what Jim said their county was trying to figure out how to do with Study in Scarlet.

  5. Katya

    On the other hand, the case of a VP at BYU overriding the BYU Bookstore’s decision to stock No Going Back probably does count as book banning, by that criterion–though maybe not, since the “censorship” was internal to the sponsoring institution.

    I’d say it’s poor collection management, regardless, especially if the VP in question hasn’t read the book.

  6. Adam G.

    I thoroughly approve of a week for banning books.

    Let us move with the times and also use these precious seven days for banning websites, multimedia, and performance art.

  7. Kent Larsen Post author

    Ah, more of Adam’s obscure humor.

    Tell you what, Adam. Pass me a list of the books you try to get your local library to ditch, and I’ll pass it on to the folks at the ALA.

  8. Adam G.

    Monsters and Mormons, the Lego Kama Sutra, and the pernicious Harry Potter series, which teaches kids to leave their shirts untucked. Also, of course, any book which doesn’t damn John Jay.

  9. Wm Morris

    That’s awesome, Adam. We may be stealing it. Except we own your soul already so…

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