This week is banned book week. While I applaud the sentiment, the whole exercise is, if you’ll excuse the crude phrase, a masturbatory gesture in the United States. According the Banned Books week site:
Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association. There were 311 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2014, and many more go unreported
Often times, these ‘challenges’ are in localities or individual school systems.
To argue that there is some sort of vast censorship network is facile; a case of a parent protesting a sexually explicit book to a school board is nothing compared to the actual obscenity law infrastructure in the United States in the early twentieth century. Copies of Ulysses had to be literally smuggled into the US prior to the 1934 law suit which allowed it to be published (see Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses). Customs officials confiscated and destroyed many of the original copies of the first (self-published) edition of the novel. Now, the primary drivers of so-called censorship are often parents concerned with what their children are being assigned to read in school. Cases of a school board here and there banning books with sexual content, violence, or other explicit material. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian was taken out of the curriculum in Waterloo, Iowa for its use of profanity and sexual references. The case of a single book banned from one school system’s middle schools (it remained on the high school reading list) hardly constitutes an affront to overall freedom of speech.
A book that features sexual deviancy, violence, etc. must be good according to the logic of the ALA. In the day we live in, media promotes the idea that absolute freedom must be a good thing, so long as it doesn’t harm others. Exercising any kind of decorum or restraint is shot down with the eternal bleat of the student activist, “fascist, racist,” and whatever other ad-hominem attacks you can think of. That is really the kind of material we should be reading this week; the writers that have gone down the memory hole in modern academia. Whatever one thinks of the authors, it is better to read Louis-Ferdinand Celine or Ezra Pound and have your world view challenged. A tall order for the gate keepers of culture, given that intellectual honesty is hard to find in this day and age.
Practically speaking, the quickest way for a book to get read is to ban it. There is a time and a place for sex or violence in fiction, and I have read a great many of these ‘banned’ books. But to make a holiday out of banned or challenged books in the modern West is absurd. It affirms the irony of the American culture industry; it purports to be free-thinking and open when the vast majority of media, and unfortunately people (on both the Left and Right), are among the most close-minded in the world.
This sort of holiday is not really about reading banned or controversial books, though. It is a vehicle by which people can post on social media how enlightened they are by reading the Establishment approved banned books. Just search Banned Books Week on Twitter, and you can find numerous examples of people preaching how censorship is wrong. Overt censorship is hardly an issue; the people of a small community ban a particular book is not the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy taking over. You would be hard pressed to find someone who advocated for censorship. No matter how well presented the argument they would shouted down.
Instead of reading a book banned for sexual content, I suggest we read The Communist Manifesto or The Road to Serfdom, anything that has intellectual substance to it. Reading a book banned for sexuality or violence in a rural school system is merely bourgeois armchair activism, designed not to provoke change but garner attention.