Banned Books

Over the past year, banning books in U.S. libraries, both public and school, has reached an all-time high. Now, to be frank, trying to ban books in the United States has a long and odious history that dates back to the arrival of the first “colonists,” or if we’re being perfectly truthful, the first European invaders, but, all too often, truth is one of the reasons why people want to ban books, because, if it’s not their truth, or it contradicts or shows flaws in their truth, they don’t want a contrary truth out there, especially where their children might encounter it.

The books banned somewhere in the United States are too numerous even to list them all, but among those banned are titles that are classics of one sort or another: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, The Jungle, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Slaughterhouse Five, Gone with the Wind, A Farewell to Arms, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Catch-22, Of Mice and Men, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Beloved, Ulysses [James Joyce], The Color Purple, The Grapes of Wrath [also an older book, released in 1939 by Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck], The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man [Ralph Ellison], Song of Solomon [Toni Morrison, another Nobel Prize winner], and Native Son [Richard Wright]

The vast majority of books being banned currently deal with race or racial identity, gender issues, and systemic injustice, and the majority of the current bans are by schools and public libraries.

In 2020, the latest year for which statistics have been compiled, the most challenged book was George, a novel about the life of a transgender fourth grader. The other nine books that made the 2020 top 10 banned list were Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You; All American Boys; Speak; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice; To Kill a Mockingbird [some 60 years after it was first published]; Of Mice and Men; The Bluest Eye [Toni Morrison]; and The Hate U Give.

The latest high profile attack by the book banners is Maus, a serialized comic book published as a graphic novel in 1992 [and the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize] by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who channeled his Polish-Jewish, Holocaust-surviving parents’ experiences into the semi-autobiographical masterpiece in which Jews are represented as mice and Germans as cats.

From what I can see, the book banners all share one common trait – they want to decide what published work they, their friends, and their children can even see on the bookshelves, and they’re angry and afraid that views contrary to their own will pollute or contaminate people, or heaven forbid, make them think and change their views. In short, the book banners want control.

And that kind of control is antithetical to the First Amendment, pure and simple.

If a parent can’t instill basic human values in his, her, or their children before they start really reading, banning books isn’t going to help. In fact, banning a book might even spur greater interest in the banned book. Apparently, after the attack on Maus, the book moved back onto the bestseller list.

What book banners all have in common is a dislike of something depicted in the book they wish banned, and these dislikes spring from both ends of the political spectrum, and rarely from those with more moderate views.

Like all true believers, the book banners are firmly convinced that they, and only they, should control the books their children and others in their community can even see on the library shelves or be taught in school, regardless of whether they’re literary classics or present an accurate depiction of events or beliefs that have created harm to others.

But then, while there just might be a connection between people who don’t want their children to have open minds and those who insist that an honest and fair election was stolen because they didn’t like the results, there are also those at the other end of the political spectrum who also don’t want facts, presentations, and views contrary to their beliefs represented on the shelves.

Censorship is censorship, regardless of political, social, or economic views.

8 thoughts on “Banned Books”

  1. K. Lorenz says:

    Thank you Mr. Modesitt. I expected I would learn some things when you wrote a blog on this subject.

    I had read recently that there has been a case heard/decided in the US Supreme court previously that affirmed the unconstitutionality of book bans. I can’t find the reference, but if true, it only highlights that relief from erosion of rights we all have is difficult and uneven in the US.

    Perhaps, if you and others reading this blog could shed some light on how we all may make progress against book banning, please do so. Short of storming the individual school board meetings and letter writing campaigns, I’m afraid that it is so much like spitting into the wind. Sure, electing appropriate citizens to every school board would help, but it is a daunting task to try to defend so many fronts in the culture wars.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful article. I’m guessing there are some new additions to my reading list now.

    1. Lourain says:

      Banning books is more like spitting in the wind. Teenagers, being natural contrarians, are more likely to read the banned books than the books on the reading list. The banned books will not disappear.

  2. Tim says:

    Oddly several of the books on your first list were on my mandatory reading list for an English examination taken when I was 15/16 in the 1960s. I disliked most of them as we had to dissect and analyse them to great depth, so all enjoyment left. As it happened I did very well in the exam but I never read any of them again.

    Concerning your last para: From memory, one of your recent posts stated that a society needs rules to operate well. Surely some degree of control must be exercised by parents and schools on the reading matter of young minds.

    Try buying Mein Kampf in Germany for example.

    1. Lourain says:

      I read an English translation of Mein Kampf when I was in high school, back in the 60s. I assure you, I did not become a Nazi.

      Banning books just makes them more interesting to the (overtly or secretly) rebellious teenagers. Much better not to ban them. Of course, that would mean that parents and teachers might get some very uncomfortable questions.

      1. Tim Twineham says:

        Actually I did ask uncomfortable questions in c!ass and was told to be quiet. So I did otherwise life would have been hell in the all male school I attended. But my questions remained and that shaped my political views going forward for better or for worse.

  3. Bill says:

    It is also done as a publicity stunt or virtue signaling. If a group is being questioned about their extremist credentials or is losing membership a good book banning/burning brings them back in focus. It can also be used to distract from a real issue. It is really hard to ban a book with the internet around.

    1. Postagoras says:

      I agree with this. We should be talking about educational policy and funding, but the conversation is hijacked by folks freaking out publicly about a book in the library.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    There’s a range of appropriateness: a children’s section of a public library, or the library of a primary school, might wish to be not only age-appropriate, but apply parental controls to content (library card signed by parent with categories not permitted to be checked out clearly marked; or the digital equivalent – some parents may not wish anything that substantially conflicts with “traditional” values, others may want to be more “inclusive” – both words with quotes to indicate a degree of skepticism about correlation between nominal motive and actual result). Less controls should apply at secondary school level, and at college level or adult section of public library, only SELF-chosen filtering categories should apply, and then only as a means of assistance (and to a degree, of partially informing what physical content to carry given finite budget and shelf space; you don’t need two copies of something that it’s doubtful if anyone in your town will want to read…even if it might be good for them to challenge their preconceptions, that’s their call, and should not be forced on them).

    Where none of those parentally or self-chosen categories apply, perhaps for secondary schools at parental option for those under 18, and definitely for 18+ or college or adult portion of public library, NO banning or restricted access, give or take excluding material whose primary purpose is prurient interest (e.g. certain magazines), should occur – and those, adults can darn well buy for themselves if they really want them.

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