Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hemingway on Book Banning

At The Federalist, Mark Hemingway discusses what he learned about the American Library Association's annual Banned Books Week while serving as a member of a school board. Excerpts:
It turns out that my responsibilities as a father and school board member are seemingly at odds with my vocation as a writer in a significant respect: I am someone who bans books. The younger me would be horrified by this turn of events, but then again, the younger me was an idiot who knew nothing about responsibility or children. ...

[W]e have reached a state of affairs where "book banning" has been defined down to mean "making responsible decisions about what reading material is edifying and and age-appropriate for school children." With great hyperbole, every fall the American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week -- a typical ALA press release is headlined "Book banning alive and well in the U.S."

Except that it’s not. ... If you read the fine print at the ALA, the idea that book banning is "alive and well" is exposed for the lie that it really is. Every year, the "Office for Intellectual Freedom" -- the grandiosely named division of the ALA charged with patrolling the DMZ between civilization and chaos -- celebrates Banned Books week by publishing a list of "Frequently Challenged Books." Again, it’s a list of books that are neither banned or even necessarily removed from shelves, merely "challenged" by people from the community for one reason or another. Yes, many of these reasons are stupid. From time to time a legitimately classic work of fiction ends up on the list. But it’s telling that such books are as likely to be challenged for politically correct reasons as they are for violating narrow ideas about traditional morality. In 2011, To Kill a Mockingbird made the list, and according to the ALA, people objected due to "offensive language [and] racism" despite the obviously righteous context.
Read the whole thing. While Hemingway spends a lot of time decrying the current state of YA fiction, I have little interest in dwelling on that topic. The moral quality of all sorts of literature (to use the term broadly) has fluctuated quite a lot over time, and a current nadir hardly seems newsworthy. However, the ALA's ongoing triumph of marketing over common sense troubles me because of the poisonous atmosphere it creates. Why is it a problem equate public parental distaste for particular titles with prior restraint? Because it equates censorship (a devil word, for those who've studied rhetorical criticism) with disagreement. No one has to stock a particular title. No one has to read it. It needn't grace the shelves of every American library for freedom to remain intact. Rather, freedom requires the existence of open, robust debate, of public give and take. By all means, write your controversial tome. But don't demagogue others if they don't desire to support it.

(Picture: CC 2007 by East Branch of the Dayton Metro Library)

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