The glaring omissions of Banned Books Week
If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. -- Noam Chomsky
It's banned books week, and that's a good thing. It's good that we hold attempts to keep people from information up to the light and waggle a finger, though holes in their reporting methods keep some of the most challenged books in America from being recognized while singling out others challenged by single individuals.
First, let me point out that everybody who wants to stop someone else from reading a book does it for a good reason, or at least a reason they think is good.
Their reason may be that they think the book is devoid of any educational or literary content, such as in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey pulled from library shelves in Brevard County, Florida -- it may be because they believe the information in the book is too dangerous for you to know, like the frequently challenged though now classic bomb building manual "The Anarchists Cookbook -- it may be because they think the text is insulting to a group of people, as in the case of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses -- or, they may think that it will incite people to harm other people -- which was the reason the Texas Department of Corrections has given for censoring Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis -- fear that the book about prison reform would cause racial disharmony and riots.
Since 1982 the American Library Association, among others, has been keeping tabs on books that people have tried to get removed from library shelves. Every year they produce a list of the books that received the most challenges. According to their website they logged nearly 5,100 requests to have books stricken from shelves between 2000 and 2009. In 2012-2013 the number one book on their list is Dav Pilkey's series Captain Underpants – an adorable comic about two fourth graders who turn their school principal into a hypnotized superhero running around in his underwear. We read this, we make a funny face, say “Who the hell would want to keep people from reading Captain Underpants? We laugh at the silly people who still freak out over The Catcher in the Rye and get indignant that they don't understand Beloved or Huckelberry Finn and we sit around feeling intellectually superior to those rubes who would get so worked up over a book about gay penguins that they'd write a letter to a library demanding it be pulled from shelves.
So when the 2012-2013 list came out last week I was a little surprised to see that Banned Books Week ignores completely, what I think were inarguably two of the most challenged books of the last year, or at least the only books I ever saw any news articles about, namely the unwritten behind-the-scenes tell-all by George Zimmerman juror B37 which was squashed six hours after it was announced by avalanche of Internet protest bombarding the nascent authors literary agent until she dropped the project, the second was Reddit troll Ken Hoinsky's attempt at self publishing Above the Game a book on how to act like a jerk and pick up women. His Kickstarter received $16,000 worth of advance orders, but an Internet petition with more than 63,000 signatures caused the crowd funding website to shut down his project and pull it from their website four hours before the end. In response to the outrage Kickstarter eventually issued an apology to the public for even allowing the project in the first place and announced a ban on the entire genre of so-called "seduction guides".
The threshold for getting on the list of Banned or Challenged Books is low; some were challenges by a single person, often a parent or school principal. Take, for example, the case of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card which, according to Banned Books Week was "characterized by one student and one parent as pornographic." Or Sarah Brannen's picture book Uncle Bobby’s Wedding which was “Challenged, but retained at the Brentwood, Mo. Public Library (2012) despite a resident who did not like the book’s subject matter.” (Gay guinea pig wedding? Bring it on! I say.)
While the list specifically targets attempts to remove books from official institutions; schools or libraries (and a book can only be "banned" by a government entity), ignoring books that were prevented from ever reaching a publisher is a bit like asking members of a country club if they think the membership requirements are too strict without surveying the hoi polloi at the gates demanding to be let in. After all, Banned Books Week isn't cataloging the number of time a government body removed a book from the shelves; they're documenting the number of times someone ASKED a government entity to remove a book, so you'd think they'd be interested in the number of people asking publishers to never let a book be printed so that it could end up in a library in the first place. Removing a copy of a book from a shelf makes it more difficult for some people to get access to that book. Keeping a book from being published keeps everyone from reading it. By ignoring larger threats to books, I think BBW may be spending too much time counting fish in their own aquarium.
I worked in a bookstore during what were probably the two biggest attempts at book censorship of my generation, and neither came from the US government; the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the first non-publishing and then eventually publishing of Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho. I dutifully bought and read both and eventually ended up coming to believe they were both masterpieces. I seriously doubt that either Above the Game or Juror B37's unnamed book would rise to their level, but some individuals were so certain that Rushdie's book was of no value that people were murdered over it and people at Simon and Schuster got up from their desks quit their jobs over the decision to publish the misogynisticly violent American Psycho (Vantage eventually published it). I think the public responded properly to the challenging of those books – by getting irate, buying them, and reading them (or at least buying them) in a symbolic middle finger that says “you can't tell me what ideas I can be exposed to!” The publishers took a risk (especially in the case of the paperback edition of Verses which was ghost published by an anonymous group mysteriously called “The Consortium”) in putting out the books but eventually decided it was a moral obligation.
From the “Books Challenged or Banned” report come these words:
Even when the eventual outcome allows the book to stay on the library shelves and even when the person is a lone protester, the censorship attempt is real. Someone has tried to restrict another person’s ability to choose. Challenges are as important to document as actual bannings, in which a book is removed from the shelves of a library or bookstore or from the curriculum at a school. Attempts to censor can lead to voluntary restriction of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy; in these cases, material may not be published at all or may not be purchased by a bookstore, library, or school district.
This is high minded rhetoric and I, for what it's worth, completely agree with it.
We [and by “we” I mean “me”] enjoy furrowing our brows over ignorant people who get bent out of shape over The Kite Runner's "vulgar language" or "some parents" in the ironically named "Liberty, South Carolina" who were furious that Romeo and Juliet was "too mature for kids because of the sex," we shake our heads and and are glad that we live in enlightened environments that wouldn't run from a book. We think we're champions of ideas and, especially, we think we're champions of controversial ideas, because we know that's the right side of history to be on and we've all benefitted from controversial ideas that someone, somewhere, tried to keep us from reading.
Banned Books Week rightly charges us to take action and protect our right to read:
"The First Amendment …” they point out, “ensures that none of us has the right to control or limit another person’s ability to read or access information. Yet, when individuals or groups file formal written requests demanding that libraries and schools remove specific books from the shelves, they are doing just that—attempting to restrict the rights of other individuals to access those books."
They go on to admonish: “The best way to fight censorship is to be aware that it’s happening. When you encounter it, be prepared to speak up or let others know."
So I am.
Googling "banned books week" + "Above the Game" I get only two relevant results; one is someone musing that it's probably wrong to ban books, whatever they're about, and the other is a small publishers blog celebrating Banned Books Week in a laudable entry which ends "Here’s to all the banned books, the good, the bad, the brilliant and the brave," and then a scant four entries later, a post announcing that the publisher is pulling their work from Kickstarter in protest for it being used to fund Above the Game saying "we cannot in good conscience continue to ask potential backers to support Kickstarter at this time."
I think quietly, in the backs of our minds, regardless of what we say publicly, we'd mostly all prefer a free exchange of ideas that only involved ideas that we like, but that's not really what a free exchange of ideas is. If we want to protect speech, we also have to protect speech that we find tasteless or morally reprehensible, because that's what we're expecting everyone else to do.
The only valiant place to throw stones from is from the moral high ground. It is not, by any means, a safe place from which to throw stones, but seize it, set up camp, and don't leave. Especially when you find yourself speaking up for a bunch of people you don't believe really have anything worth saying.
Add me: [LiveJournal] [Facebook] [Twitter] [Google+] [Tumblr]