School is starting up again, and later this month we will celebrate another national tradition: Banned Books Week, which since 1982 takes place every year during the last week of September.
It's an exciting time. There are going to be special readings of "banned books" not merely in bookstores (where the banned books will, tellingly, be for sale) but online as well. This year, explains BannedBooksWeek.org, "readers will be able to proclaim the virtues of their favorite banned books by posting videos of themselves reading excerpts to a dedicated YouTube channel." It's all so very brave and subversive!
Already, news outlets are dusting off familiar stories about the scary climate of censorship in the land. Indeed, it's a staple of nearly every major newspaper to at least let the American Library Association air its dire warnings about the growing threat to the freedom to read. Last year, on the eve of Banned Books Week, the ALA's official magazine, American Libraries, ran a story headlined, "Book banning alive and well in the U.S."
"What do books from the Twilight series, To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye have in common?" asked the magazine, "All have faced removal from library bookshelves in the United States within the past year."
It's a storyline the American left in particular seems to desperately want to be true. Recently, an American writer penned a lengthy online piece for the British newspaper The (London) Guardian headlined "The Tea Party moves to ban books." The left-wing activist group Think Progress announces, "Censorship On The Rise: U.S. Schools Have Banned More Than 20 Books This Year."
The problem: None of this is remotely true. Banned Books Week is an exercise in propaganda. For starters, as a legal matter no book in America is banned, period, full stop (not counting, I suppose, some hard-core illegal child porn or some such out there). Any citizen can go to a bookstore or Amazon.com and buy any book legally in print -- or out of print for that matter.
When the American Library Association talks about censorship of books, it invariably refers to "banned or challenged" books. A "banned" book is a book that has been removed from a public library or school's shelves or reading lists due to pressure from someone who isn't a librarian or teacher. In practice, this means pretty much any book that's pulled off the shelves of a library can be counted as "banned." Even so, that's very rare, which is why the ALA lump "banned" and "challenged" together. Moreover, it's crazy. If the mere absence of a book counts as a "ban," then 99.99 percent of books have been banned somewhere.
Meanwhile, a challenge happens when someone -- usually a parent -- questions the suitability of a book. If you complain that your 8-year-old kid shouldn't be reading a book with lots of sex, violence or profanity until he or she is a little older, you're not a good parent; you're a would-be book-banner. The preferred tactic of the BBWers is to highlight a stupid decision by one school somewhere in America and hype the anecdote as a trend. So when a school in Missouri recently removed Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" from its shelves, it was immediately decried as the harbinger of a national trend. (The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library immediately offered all the school's students free copies of the "banned" book)
To get a sense of how overhyped these sorts of stories are, consider that reported challenges have dropped from 513 in 2008 to 348 last year. The historic norm is a mere 400 to 500 bans or challenges.
Well, there are almost 100,000 public schools in America (98,706 in 2009) educating roughly 50 million students. (There are 33,000 private schools. And some 10,000 public libraries). So if there were, say, 500 parent-driven "bans or challenges" in a given year in public schools, that would mean for every 200 public schools, or every 100,000 students, at least one parent even complained about an age-inappropriate book. What an epidemic!
These days, teachers unions are fond of claiming that apathetic parents deserve more of the blame for the woeful state of education today. Maybe so. But a national policy of bullying parents interested in what their kids are reading hardly seems like the best way to encourage them. Indeed, from these numbers, the real scandal might be that so few books are "banned or challenged."
As an author myself, I'm all for making book-reading more attractive to young people. Banned Books Week seems in part designed to make book-reading seem "subversive." That's admirable. But Banned Books Week has less admirable themes as well. As an educational enterprise, it denigrates the United States as a backward, censorial country when it's anything but. It demeans parents and other citizens who take an interest in the schools. And it attempts to elevate the judgment of professional librarians to unimpeachable heights -- the same librarians who've sometimes pushed to allow nearly unfettered access to porn in public libraries. Fighting mythical censorship with real propaganda hardly seems like a worthwhile trade.