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Yes, We Still Need Banned Book Week

book banned weekBanned Book Week 2015 kicked off yesterday,and if Ruth Graham had her druthers this will be the last one.

Writing over at Slate, Graham argues that there is no need for a Banned Book Week because it’s not possible to ban a book in 2015:

The latest story about censorship in America began when a Knoxville, Tennessee, woman named Jackie Sims found out that her 15-year-old son had been assigned to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks over the summer. Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book tells the true story of a poor black woman whose cancerous cervical cells became the basis for medical advances including the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization without her knowledge; it’s a best-selling, critically acclaimed account about science, race, ethics, and family. But Sims told a local TV station that she “consider[s] the book pornographic,” and wanted it out of the hands of all students in the district.

“Just in time for #BannedBooksWeek, a parent in Tennessee has confused gynecology with pornography,” Skloot announced on her Facebook page. …

… This year’s event began Sunday and runs through the end of the week, with parties and “read-outs” all over the country. It’s a cause that’s easy to support; Banned Books Week is well-intentioned, and it’s unquestionably run by the good guys. In the battle between a prudish mom and freedom, it’s not hard to pick sides. But in feeding off of conflicts like Sims vs. the school board, Banned Books Week also traffics in fear-mongering over censorship, when in fact the truth is much sunnier: There is basically no such thing as a “banned book” in the United States in 2015.

Given that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been banned four times in four school districts since it was published in 2007, and according to Wikipedia was most recently banned in Idaho in 2014, it’s hard to imagine just what basis Graham uses to claim that book banning doesn’t exist.

But apparently she doesn’t see one school district banning a book (or four, for that matter) as a serious matter, not when viewed in terms of historical context:

Once upon a time, book bans were a serious issue in the United States. The Comstock Law, passed by Congress in 1873, made it illegal to circulate “obscene literature.” Even classics like The Canterbury Tales fell under that description in the eyes of Victorian moralists, and in the middle of the last century, publishers and booksellers of forbidden novels including Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill were actually prosecuted in court.

That’s a pretty high standard, and it is also nonsensical.

Graham is conveniently ignoring the fact that historically speaking there were many books which were banned on a local and district level that were never banned on a national level.

For example, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was banned by several public libraries shortly after it was published in 1885 (Wikipedia), and it has frequently been banned in the 130 years since.

It was last the subject of controversy in 2011 when someone published an expurgated version which was intended to offer an alternative to school districts that had banned the book due to its language.

So basically the book banning we deplore as a historical fact is still going on in this day and age. That strikes me as a great reason to continue the annual protest that is Banned Book Week, but Graham would disagree.

She feels that because book bans don’t seriously impact a rich white woman like herself, they don’t harm anyone:

Once upon a time, if your local library and bookstores didn’t carry a book, it would have been very difficult to procure it elsewhere. But of course we’re now living in an era of unprecedented access to reading material. If your local library declines to carry what you want to read these days, there has been no time in history where it’s easier for you to read it anyway.

I have two words for you:

Digital Divide.

And I have another word for you:


Even if Graham were right about the historical aspects, and even if she were right about the impact of modern-day book banning, she would still be wrong as a matter of principle.

Banned Book Week is to our culture what the flu vaccine is to your body.

Banned Book Week is the annual booster shot that keeps censorship at bay. It keeps local book bans from growing into large-scale book burning. And before you roll your eyes, I would remind you that people were burning books here in the US as recently as 2006.

We have a Banned Book Week every year because there are elements in our society that would gleefully destroy knowledge if they were able.

Devoting one week a year to fighting them to a standstill is worth it, in my opinion.

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J. Kirsch September 29, 2015 um 12:13 pm

I could not agree more, Nate. Isn’t this is the same Ruth Graham who wrote that ridiculous article trashing YA books?

It’s sad because on the local level I have seen schools ban books (officially or unofficially) for some of the silliest reasons imaginable. I once was told that the student at the middle school could not read a highly praised book because there was one instance of the word 'ass'.

Book banning will remain something to watch against as long as people have the inherent urge to judge others and try to snuff out worldviews with which they disagree. Ruth Graham’s comments speak to a staggering level of ignorance. I would love to ask her how much she ever exposes herself to other cultures or worldviews. She seems quite happy to be insulated in her ivory tower and make pronouncements about what everyone else should be doing (or not doing, as the case may be).

Nate Hoffelder September 29, 2015 um 12:29 pm

That is her, yes. I couldn’t find a reason to mention that detail, so I left it out.

"She seems quite happy to be insulated in her ivory tower and make pronouncements about what everyone else should be doing"

Oooh, now that is a good description. I’m going to keep it for the next time I have to write about Graham.

Banned Books Blues 2015 | Agnostic, Maybe September 30, 2015 um 12:20 am

[…] latter, information access is a key librarian principle. While it is better known in some ways as the digital divide, the removal of material due to subjective personal values is a barrier for others. This is one of […]

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