This week is Banned Books Week. This is a subject near and dear to my liberal, free-spirited heart and Nicole has chosen to talk about it so I am delighted to join in the conversation.
Banned Books Week is an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association to do a couple of things: make us aware of books that have been banned in the past, for various reasons, and in doing so, spark an interest in and conversation about the idea of censorship.
I despise censorship. I want to be upfront about that from the start. You know how Nicole and Joe love, love, love the Second Amendment? Well, that’s how I am about the First one.
I was raised by a very religious mother who, fortunately for me, was pretty liberal when it came to reading material. I couldn’t wear slacks, and I couldn’t go to movies, but she didn’t really pay much attention to what I read. And I was a book worm.
When I was about 11, my grandfather gave me a book. It was a large one-volume collection of the works of Mark Twain. It has really thin pages, sort of like a Bible. I loved it. I still love it, because I still have it. I was going to take a photo of it, but we’re remodeling and my books are stored away in boxes for the moment.
Anyway, I am quite sure that my grandfather never read the book. I know for certain my mother never did. They just saw “Mark Twain” and thought Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and that was as far as they thought.
Those novels, of course, were included in the book, but so was a story called The Mysterious Stranger. If you are unfamiliar with the work, please click on the link and scroll down to the several quoted paragraphs toward the end of the piece.
My grandfather and my mother totally forgot (or didn’t know) that Mark Twain was a cynic and an atheist.
And I read every word of that book, more than once. Please imagine a child of about 11, taught that the Bible is totally true and Jesus is totally real, reading that quote from The Mysterious Stranger after being totally invested in the story. It had a profound impact on me. I’ve never forgotten my horror and it’s been about 55 years.
My point here is this: Just because a child has the intellectual capability of reading adult literature, just because she can read the words and understand what is being said, does not mean that the child has the emotional capability of processing the information without some sort of guidance. It wasn’t that Twain was wrong. I am an atheist (now) and share his views. The problem was that I was young and I really needed to be able to talk with some adult about the issues raised and I couldn’t.
I didn’t tell my mother about the story. I knew what would happen if I did. She would have taken the book away from me. I didn’t want censorship, but I certainly needed conversation and a bit of guidance.
Keep that little anecdote in mind as we continue.
I think I’ve written about this before, but hell, I’m old, and I can repeat myself if I want. When we lived in Alaska, I volunteered at our local library. Here it is.
I was not only a volunteer librarian, but I also was the treasurer. I served in that capacity for much of the time we lived there (about 9 years). So I know a little about how libraries work and how they are funded and how to manage one, albeit a teensy one.
In Alaska, our little library was funded several ways. Our primary funding was via a state grant, given to us by the legislature every year. We were never exactly sure how much we would get. It all depended on how much the legislature approved and how many libraries applied for funding.
We were required, as a condition of receiving the funding, to raise a comparable amount from the community. During the time I was there, we experimented with several ideas for fund-raising (our least-favorite thing to do), and came up with a sweepstakes, which has remained in place ever since. They, in fact, are getting ready for it right now. We sold tickets for $100 a pop, and the ticket served as entry to the party (held at the local community club, complete with food) and the subsequent drawing. Multiple prizes were given away, mostly cash.
The third thing we got in terms of funding was E-Rate. That is a federal program which allowed us to have telephone and internet service at very reduced prices. This facilitated offering computer access to the public.
So, the library was (and still is) funded by community donations, by state grants and by federal dollars.
But nobody told us what books to buy or what to offer and what to do about any of that.
The contents of our library were determined entirely by the library’s board, and I was on that board, so I know how the decisions were made.
Libraries are finite. They are not Amazon. They can’t have every book that has ever been printed in them. Shelf space in a library is valuable space and none of us were ever cavalier about the decision to place a book on the shelf or to remove it.
We used to weed books (and that’s what we called it – “weeding”) about twice a year. We got boxes, divided the library up in sections and began working. We had come up with criteria to help us make decisions, involving how often the book had been checked out (circulation), whether or not it was considered a classic (subjective, but we had to start someplace), and whether or not we had lots of books on the same subject (repetitiveness). A book that just sat on the shelf doing nothing got removed.
And once all the books that were weeded were in the boxes, we all went through the boxes and pulled out those we didn’t agree with tossing. And then we argued about it, politely.
In the end, a whole pile of books left the library to be donated, were sold for really cheap, or went to the dump.
Every now and then, we got a complaint. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen. We actually had a form, if I remember correctly, that people could fill out if they wanted to complain about something, and that included the inclusion (or exclusion) of any book on our shelves. Typically, a complaint would come from a parent who thought that a particular book in the children’s section wasn’t appropriate for one reason or another.
When that happened, we would discuss the issue in the board meeting. Most of us were very pro-free speech and loathe to do any censoring of any sort (a very common feeling among librarians in general), but we did agree that there should be fairly obvious areas for picture books, for children’s books and for young adult books, so that parents could easily determine which shelves their children were browsing. And what generally happened was that we’d agree to move a particular book from the children’s area to the young adult area.
Our reasoning centered around the issue I raised earlier with my little story about Mark Twain and The Mysterious Stranger.
When I was in the twelfth grade, the principal of the school, Mrs. Polly McKay, called me into her office to have a chat. It seems that the school librarian had reported to Mrs. McKay that I had checked out East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
Mrs. McKay felt that the book was too mature for my tender years.
I remember being astonished.
I asked her to please explain to me why, if the book was too mature for me, and I was in the twelfth grade, what the book was doing in the library at all.
She had no answer.
Libraries have to make choices about what to put on their shelves and what to either never buy or remove. It’s a problem that is perennial and thorny.
Here’s another kind of twitchy problem. Somebody in our little community donated the entirety of the Left Behind series to our library. You wanna see a really shitty series of books? Get volume one of that series and start reading. I give you about ten minutes. Awful.
And it wasn’t one book. It was a bunch of books. Sixteen of them. That’s a lot of shelf space for shitty books.
But if we refused them, we’d be accused of religious discrimination. We knew that. We’d also have hurt the feelings of somebody in a very small community. We had no desire to do that.
So we tolerated them for a while. They, naturally, due to sheer shittiness, did not circulate worth a damn, and after a year or so, they began to disappear. I hope they are all gone now.
My point here is that nobody made these decisions for us. We met as a board of directors, we got input from the community, and we took a vote. It was always difficult and we tried very hard to err on the side of free speech.
And the state government, those folks that gave us our grant, and the federal government that furnished us with the E-Rate credit on our telephone and internet access had zero input into any of this. Absolutely none.
From Nicole’s Blessed Little Homestead Facebook page.
Notice that she insists that “the government” bans books. And then she puts up pictures of books that at one time, some place, were banned. The implication is that all book banning is done by the US government. She doesn’t explicitly say that, but she is certainly implying it.
The US government has not banned a book in decades.
And then she tells us to read banned books, because anarchy.
How about reading, period? How about reading banned books because they contain often-controversial subject matter? How about making sure that if you allow children to read that sort of stuff, you also provide them with guidance and a bit of conversation? How about providing children with age-appropriate books, and teaching them to read in the first place (doubtful at the Blessed Little Property)?
If you’re going to complain about literature being banned, and in doing so, you’re going to use hashtags, spell the name correctly.
There are zillions of books in print. It’s not possible for anyone to read all of them. I know, because I have made a valiant effort to do just that and have failed miserably.
And not every book that has been banned should be given a glance or any valuable time to be read at all.
Here’s an example.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a book I’ve never read, except for excerpts. I have no intention of ever reading it. If you really can’t bear it and want to read it, Google it and you can find a copy online. I am 67 years old. Why would I want to waste my time, as little as I have remaining, to read a piece of shit like that when beautiful books like The Jewel in the Crown (my current Audible book) are out there beckoning to me? Why would I waste time with a complete fraud of a book that has led to so much anti-Semitic hatred and violence?
Should the book be banned? I do not think so. However, I doubt I’d vote to give it library space if I were still sitting on the library board.
Here’s a list of books that were “challenged” (meaning that some library got a complaint about the book) in 2015. Notice how often the reason given is “unsuited for age group”? That’s exactly what I was talking about in my Twain story. It’s a very subjective issue and a thorny one. And it’s difficult to know what to do about it, if anything at all. One solution involves making sure that parents realize what subject matter is involved in books their children check out. Does that mean putting a warning sticker on the front? (That would increase circulation, I bet!) I don’t know, but I do know that the issues are real and all sides have reasonable concerns.
Just like we had to do at the library, you have to make these kinds of decisions at your house. What books are you going to spend time reading? Which ones are worth bothering with? Which ones will you buy in hard copy form and store? Which ones will you read and discard? You can’t eat at every restaurant in the world, and you can’t read all the books.
Choose carefully. Choose wisely.
The government does not care what or how you choose.