[Happy Banned Books Week! In high school I had a deeply nerdy sweatshirt that read “Celebrate Freedom: Read a Banned Book”; this week I’ll do so by AmericanStudying books that have been frequently banned, in the past or recently. And yeah, read a Banned Book this week!]
On why the concept of “banned books” isn’t quite as obviously wrong as we might think.
You’re not likely to find a more lifelong opponent of banning books, and I do mean lifelong—as I noted above, one of my favorite sweatshirts in high school (what can I say, I was an uber-nerd) read “Celebrate Freedom, Read a Banned Book” and then listed a group of works that have been banned at one time or another. So it wasn’t easy for me to write the teaser sentence above, believe me. But the truth is that in our conversations about banning and censorship we tend to conflate a couple pretty different actions: attempting to remove books from schools and/or libraries (a practice that I thoroughly oppose); and advocating that we not teach books in particular classes, for certain grade levels, and so on. The latter, which is generally known instead as “challenging” those books, is certainly complicated and often problematic, but is not the same as banning the book from those institutions.
For a case in point, we could go to the ur-source for such conversations: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Within a year of its 1885 American publication the novel was banned by the Concord Public Library, the first of many such bannings. But even if we agree with the premise that the CPL and other banning institutions were mistaken (and I do), it doesn’t necessarily follow that Huck is (for example) perfectly fine to teach in middle or high school English classrooms (both places where it has been taught with some frequency). On that question I tend to agree with my Dad, Stephen Railton, who has argued that the book’s defenders have short-changed genuine questions about its language and racial depictions, particularly when it comes to the challenges of presenting them to younger readers. Which is to say, challenges of Huck in the classroom not only aren’t the same as banning or censorship—they also have, at least, a leg to stand on.
And then there’s the case of Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993). Lowry’s award-winning novel is one of the most acclaimed young adult books of the last few decades, and so it stands to reason that it would be a good choice to teach in middle school classrooms. But while the novel does not include unintentionally problematic or objectional material like Twain’s book, it does create an incredibly complex and dark dystopian world, one in which characters, situations, and themes are far more sophisticated and troubling than in many other young adult works. There’s something—a great deal, in fact—to be said for teaching precisely such complex works, provided there is sufficient time and space for the teacher and students to discuss and analyze and engage with those complexities. But there’s also something to be said for parents and organizations worrying that, in the absence of those resources, Lowry’s novel will affect students more negatively than positively. I don’t agree with the challenges that Lowry’s novel has received, but I understand them—and they shouldn’t all be dismissed as simple censorship.
Next banned book tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Banned books you’d highlight?
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