The American Library Association, which knows a lot about borrowing, has taken a page from other great causes and declared this “Banned Books Week.”
That’s welcome news, because any hint of censorship should always be taken seriously. Civilization hangs by but a thread and free speech is crucial to its survival. In his not-yet-banned post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road,” author Cormac McCarthy depicts a father and boy fighting to keep a last candle burning as their sacred duty and humanity’s last hope. I see censorship in those terms.
New ideas simply just scare some people, who then go too far. In 213 B.C. China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang hosted the first recorded book burning. He also had 460 Confucian scholars buried alive. Later came Adolf Hitler. Under his deranged and genocidal rule in Nazi Germany, publicly attended bonfires were fueled with the works of Jewish, liberal and leftist writers, including Karl Marx, all for being “un-German.” Tuck that thought into your mental file for the next time former president Donald Trump declares the media the enemy of the United States.
More recently, right here in America, book banning is enjoying something of a resurgence. We now have a week to mark its return and we also have a new PEN America report about the steady growth of the U.S. book-banning movement.
Things appear to be escalating at a pace roughly tracking our decline in public discourse. From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s school book bans index lists 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles. Most of the titles, though not all, relate to race or some variation of sex or sexuality.
Topping the banners’ lists today are minority and LGBTQ writers. Some of the writers might surprise you; some you won’t have heard of, unless a child or grandchild has brought home a book that made you look twice. Only a few authors have been brash enough to put “sex,” “gay” or “gender” in the title, but I’m guessing Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” might raise some eyebrows.
It’s all about context, though, isn’t it? Of course, elementary schoolchildren aren’t going to be exposed to such a book. But, plainly, a 16-year old doesn’t need the same level of protection. Some banned books defy reason, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which includes racial language and is often criticized for presenting a “white savior” in the iconic character of Atticus Finch, the erudite lawyer who defends a Black man falsely accused of rape.
Never mind that Harper Lee’s novel takes place in small-town Alabama between roughly 1933 and 1935. A fact we can abhor, but a fact nonetheless: There were only four Black attorneys in Alabama at that time, according to Marquette University Law School. I suspect Lee wanted to convey that not all White Southerners were racist and that some were noble, caring and committed to justice.
In less-controversial categories of books lately banned, we find writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Perhaps the censors worry that students might recognize their own times in Orwell’s “1984” and begin to question their parents’ thinking. Having read a lot of Huxley, I can’t imagine what he’s done wrong. Another banned book in some parts is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” (Why? Because every sentence is perfect?) And don’t forget about Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which is frowned upon by those still living in the 19th century because she treats racism realistically. And yet some wonder why critical race theory has come along so fast.
Strangest of all on PEN’s list, perhaps, is Wes Moore’s “Discovering Wes Moore,” in which Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee writes of meeting another Wes Moore, whose life took a different turn than his own. The author realizes how easily their roles could have been reversed. It’s an inspirational read, as is the author.
Then again, “The Holy Bible” made the American Library Association’s top 10 most challenged books in 2015 for, get this: “religious viewpoints.”
Leading the book-banning movement are about 50 groups, with around 300 regional branches. Most banned books are connected to legislation, in some way, or to elected officials seeking to rouse the rabble. The most active states for this strange business include Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Utah and Georgia. In other words, banning books is more about political maneuvering than about children.
Twas ever thus, I suppose. That said, many parents are understandably concerned about what passes for “literature” these days. I understand wanting to protect a child’s innocence. I also want them to grow up in their own measured time. These issues are complicated, to be sure. But banning books is never a solution.
If I might indulge a memory and offer some advice? My best recommendation to parents about books comes straight from my father, circa 1961, when his sixth-grade daughter was obsessed with the work of best-selling novelist Harold Robbins. (Please don’t judge.)
One night while studiously reading “The Carpetbaggers,” I overheard my mother say, “Should we be letting her read that?” And my father, bless his open mind, said: “I don’t care what she reads as long as she’s reading.”
I’d go with that if I were you, assuming you can separate the kiddos from their screens.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.