Saturday, October 8, 2011

On the Banning of Books

So, it's "Banned Books Week" again, at least according to the American Library Association, the American Bookseller's Association, and various and sundry other folks. [Update: Okay, so the week is over now, I'm just slow in getting this posted] They say
During the last week of September every year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events. The 2011 celebration of Banned Books Week will be held from September 24 through October 1. Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982.
Some of the banned books, or at least "challenged" books, include Crank, And Tango Makes Three, and classics like Brave New World.
And yet, I suggest that there are at least two very good reasons to endorse the banning of books, at least in a limited measure. Reasons that are built into the very nature of censorship.
When discussing censorship (a word that brings up images of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia), it is important to remember that there are two different kinds of censorship:
-passive censorship: This is the kind of censorship in which all people and institutions engage. We all have a limited resource pool, and decisions have to be made concerning how those resources are used. When I choose to purchase one book over another, I am exercising a kind of censorship, albeit a fairly mild and unoffensive one. So when the library has to choose between buying the newest Stephen King book and the newest Nicholas Sparks schlock, the choice of one is an automatic exclusion of the other, with no more malice behind it than that of an empty wallet.
I would suggest that this is going to be the primary point of book banning that we can engage in publicly, when we direct our libraries to purchase certain kinds of books rather than others.

-active censorship: This is the kind of censorship which involves the explicit banning of individual books or authors, or entire literary categories. Americans instinctively recoil at this sort of censorship, and yet I would maintain that there is a limited legitimacy even to this category of censorship. Were I to publish a book on the best way to break into my neighbor's house and murder him in his sleep, society would be quite right to censor me. Perhaps even punish me.

The difficult comes in establishing a boundary of appropriate censorship, in figuring  out which books are to be banned. Books that actively endorse personal evil are sometimes difficult to distinguish from those books which merely use personal evil as a vehicle to tell a story. The use of unacceptable words in Huckleberry Finn is clearly different from the use of unacceptable words in a threatening tirade directed at named individuals, but exactly where to set the difference in terms of acceptable public speech is something which even the most trained eye struggles to establish.

I make no claims to know where such a line is, I merely suggest that occasions like "banned books week" be used as an opportunity to reflect on this difficult social problem. We have a remarkable freedom to engage in public affairs in this country, and it would be a shame to let this freedom be dominated either the extreme of banning everything with anything offensive in it, or the extreme of banning nothing, however terrible it might be.

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