Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s annual self-advertisement, has now ended for this year. Bookstores will disassemble their earnest displays of “banned books,”and the semblance of normality will return to public libraries. And we will be left with the sobering thought that, in 21st-century America, there remain people who would ban the works of Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger or Judy Blume, to give some favorite examples.
Except that this year, I’m happy to report, a tiny crack appeared in the ALA’s great Banned Books Week edifice. Slate, a publication not known for its skepticism toward liberal pieties, ran an essay with the intoxicating title “Banned Books Week Is a Crock.” I was, and remain, astonished, and yet encouraged, that it should have been published—and not banned!—by the right-thinking editors at Slate.
For the essay makes the obvious point that, in this day and age, neither The Catcher in the Rye nor To Kill a Mockingbird nor any of the innumerable Young Adult classics of Judy Blume have been actually “banned” anywhere in America. One might argue, in fact, that the fiction of Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger—or the poetry of Allen Ginsburg, the novels of Toni Morrison, and so on— are altogether ubiquitous, perhaps inescapable. What the American Library Association regards as “banning,” or censorship, usually involves the hapless effort of some lone heartland citizen who objects to the inclusion of certain titles in school reading lists, and complains to his/her local school board. The petitioners are invariably religious, usually evangelical Christians, and the objections are generally about profanity or sexual language.
What the Slate essay makes clear is that not only are these efforts comparatively isolated, and infrequent, but that they are almost inevitably unsuccessful. School boards, even school boards in flyover America, tend not to acquiesce to citizen complaints about classroom reading material; and even if they do, it involves allowing the petitioners’ children—and only the petitioners’ children—to opt out of reading the objectionable titles. If this constitutes book-banning, it is the sort of “ban” that generates the kind of favorable publicity that raises sales for “banned” authors – and of course, generates the admiration of the ALA.
It is all, as the Slate headline suggests, a crock.
Yet what intrigues me about Banned Books Week publicity, and the likely political agenda over at ALA headquarters, is not what it features but what it excludes. For there is, in fact, an ongoing effort to ban books in America in 2015—that is, to exclude them from classroom reading lists, if not prevent their publication and sale – but it is taking place not on school boards in our nation’s rural communities but on college campuses in some of the most progressive and sophisticated communities in the United States. At Columbia University in Manhattan, for example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses has been excluded from the syllabus because of objections about sexual violence and replaced with—irony alert!—Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Rutgers is considering the attachment of required “trigger warnings” for The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn, and based on individual complaints, innumerable other colleges and universities are pondering the future of such works as Mrs. Dalloway or The Merchant of Venice on student reading lists.
This is exactly the same process that agitates the ALA and its friends during Banned Books Week—disaffected citizens seeking the suppression of classic works because of their personal objections to them—and yet, mysteriously, the American Library Association makes no mention of this growing menace to free speech and the freedom to read, and to great literature, not to mention literacy.
Now, why is that?