September 29, 2004

In Their Own Prison

Sheila O'Malley posts a list of banned or "challenged" books, from the American Library Association's annual banned books week promotion.

Of course, I am against banning books. Absolutely against it. No book should ever be banned or restricted. To any degree. I'm glad the ALA is drawing attention to the issue. I always wonder, though, as Sheila does, about the specific stories behind individual books on such lists.

Even though they retain the catchy name "Banned Books Week," the criteria for inclusion in the list are considerably wider. That is, they include "Challenged" books as well, which makes the whole thing fuzzier. According to the web site, "challenged" books are books which some individual or group may have attempted to ban or have removed from somewhere, regardless of whether the removal actually occurred. In view of this, I'd say the list would be a lot more useful if it included the circumstances under which the books were "challenged." Because failed attempts to ban books would seem to put those particular books in a slightly different category, i.e., "non-banned books."

Is it as ironic as it seems that so many of the books on the list of "banned" books are international best-sellers that can be found in every single bookshop and school library, including one of the most successful, record-breaking ventures in publishing history? Not quite, because getting banned or "challenged" often seems to have been the secret to phenomenal commercial success. (Part of me kind of hopes my own book gets "challenged" when it comes out. Not too "challenged." Just "challenged" enough that the ALA will put it on the list and people will write articles and do TV pieces about it and buy gazillions of copies. Is that so wrong?) Still, it is ironic. Bookshops even use it as a promotional gimmick, laying out the "banned books" on a table for sale at a special price. When I see one of those tables, I react positively, of course. That'll show 'em, I say to myself, glad to be breathing the air of Freedom. But still, there's a small part of me that is saying, "you know, these aren't actually Banned Books. Strictly speaking."

I often detect a similar ironic flavor to the Project Censored list that comes out every year. It's interesting, of course, but "censored" isn't really the right word for these news stories, all of which have appeared in mainstream or "alternative" newspapers and magazines and which can be purchased or googled without expending too much effort to evade the shadowy government censors. These are often stories that the Project Censored folks judge to be important, but which no one else really seems to care too much about. Worth pointing out, of course, but not quite the same thing as censorship.

Here's another irony: 1984 and Animal Farm are not on the list. That's ironic because earlier this year, the ALA pointedly refused to condemn Castro's crackdown on the so-called "independent librarians," whose crimes included distributing those particular books. You distribute a book, you get a twenty-year prison term. Now that's a banned book. It appears that the ALA's criteria for banned or challenged, broad as they are, are not sufficiently broad to include repressive activity which they, as an institution, have tacitly approved. Well, to my eyes, the whole banned book project is just a bit more complicated than it seems, to say the least.

Don't get me wrong: I realize the ALA's position on the "independent librarians" is complex as well, the result of internal politicking and "competing versions of the truth," as some have delicately put it. Yet, the ALA's cowardly stance on the crackdown is shameful and casts the otherwise laudable campaign to publicize all instances of "challenges" to books, other than that particular "challenge," in a distasteful light. I've written a bit about this before, and Nat Hentoff has really made the issue his own with his numerous Village Voice columns. Hentoff is a recipient of the ALA Imroth Award for Intellectual Freedom, "for courageous and articulate advocacy of the First Amendment as an author, speaker, and activist for human rights." He closes one of his columns thus:

I now publicly renounce the Immroth Award and demand that the American Library Association remove me from the list of recipients of that honor. To me, it is no longer an honor. Someone I know in the ALA, who was at the San Diego meeting, explained to me that some members of the council whispered privately that they agreed with the amendment calling for freeing the librarians but had to vote it down because they didn't want to be vilified as being "on the wrong team." They have put themselves in their own prison.
I'll never look at "Banned Books Week" in quite the same way again.

UPDATE: More thoughts on "challenged" books here

Posted by Dr. Frank at September 29, 2004 06:31 PM | TrackBack

how about "Ultimate Springsteen" by dave marsh or 'Wilco Encyclopedia" by greg kot or "Why my musical tastes RULE" by jim derogatis

i'd be up for banning those books

Posted by: captin krunchy at September 29, 2004 07:01 PM

indeed...with the wilco...I don't get it...
can anyone explain their quasi-popularity?

i have tried to like them but i guess i'm
happily clueless.slightly more on the subject...

frank,do you really expect your book to get banned..what kind of young adult novel is this?;)

Posted by: just me at September 29, 2004 09:57 PM

When I was a child, it brought me great sorrow to see Huck Finn removed from my school library simply because Jim was referred to as "Nigger". The book is back now, but the dreaded "N" word has been removed. It doesn't detract from the story, but it doesn't make it any less wrong. I wonder what the reaction would've been if I'd brought a copy of Mein Kampf in?? The Rabbis reccommend that everyone read this book to get a perspective on the persecution of the Jews in WWII. I've had the book for a couple of years and haven't finished it just because it's so damned boring. I haven't seen anything yet to make it so digusting aside from the by:Adolph Hitler written on the cover. Again, I've only read about half of it, so mabe I haven't got to the atrocities yet......

Posted by: Zaphod at September 29, 2004 10:22 PM

I'm shocked that Huckleberry Finn is being edited like that. I expect it's just in some areas though because we have a kids' version of Tom Sawyer and it still has the original language.

After reading Hentoff's column, I'm thoroughly disgusted at the ALA.

I read the banned books list but I didn't find it very helpful. It seems that these are mostly just cases of parents trying to keep sexually explicit material out of children's libraries, which I think is quite understandable. You have to draw a line somewhere. Most of us don't want our kindergartners reading Hustler.

I think the ALA should try to make a better list that confines itself to attempts to restrict what adults read. By concentrating on parents' issues they give the impression that censorship is not a big problem. I don't think that was their intention.

Posted by: Graham Lester at September 30, 2004 04:04 AM

wilco... they are the humorless soul-less self important bummer rock your mother warned you about.

everyone buy some flying burrito brothers cd's instead, OK?

Posted by: captin krunchy at September 30, 2004 08:18 AM

frank, i have a good book called 100 banned books by bald & sova. anyway, it lists the most famous 100 banned books and gives an analysis/explanation of why each book was banned. it is very interesting. a picture of dorian gray was one on there i found rather amusing. the homosexual overtones were just too much to take i guess. haha. yeah, that huck fin thing is revolting. political correctness is DESTROYING our country. if you ask me, it's just a fancy way of saying censorship.

luke b.

Posted by: luke black at September 30, 2004 09:06 AM

From this article:

"In accord with these policies, publishers eliminate or change offending passages regardless of the purpose or meaning those passages have in the original work. McGraw-Hill, for example, changes “nigger” to “Negro” in Huckleberry Finn (grade 9), Allyn and Bacon removes “piccanin” from Nadine Gordimer's “Train from Rhodesia” (grade 12), and Ginn removes the first and fifth stanzas from Richard Wright's “Hokku poems” (grade 7). Sometimes both right-wing and left-wing pressures affect the same literary work. In Patricia Zettner's story “A Perfect Day for Ice Cream,” for example, various publishers eliminate the reference to Gloria Steinem and the word pest that a child applies to a sibling because home-and-family conservatives find militant feminism and portrayals of family conflict unacceptable, but these publishers delete the phrase Kamikaze ball as well, because it could be interpreted as ethnic derogation. Since California's liberal textbook guidelines also discourage the use of materials that promote foods of low nutritive value, the publishers have changed the title of the story to “A Perfect Day” and edited out the trip to the ice cream parlor. Similarly, publishers have corrected the language of Mark Twain's characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , yielding to conservative pressure to remove poor grammar from textbooks to avoid encouraging students to use such grammar themselves, and have substituted children for boys in response to liberal pressure for sexually neutral language and the removal of any suggestion that girls have inactive or supporting roles in relation to boys..."

If you're interested in this kind of nuttiness, Diane Ravitch's Language Police is the book for you. Shocking and hilarious at the same time.

From my own childhood, I remember attempts to remove The Teddy Bear Habit from the children's section in libraries because some do-gooder noticed that it contains an unsavory description of a female street person. (I think it said something about her dirty feet.) Anyway, that was my first brush with political correctness, before it even had a name. Despite the dirty feet, The Teddy Bear Habit is a great book, and I think silently altering it so that everyone had clean feet would be a disservice to its readers.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at September 30, 2004 03:03 PM

okey dokey.

consider my statement withdrawn(except for the wilco,that still stands),i keep forgetting how california is crazy in all the wrong ways as well as the fun ways. personally i think if you can keep it on the positive and also write a good story without being crude,it makes you a better writer...but discourage books based on diet?!!

what does that even mean?

do they prefer books about pita and hummus instead
of cornchips and processed cheese?

please to esplain...

Posted by: just me at October 1, 2004 05:17 AM

Care for some Freedom Fries???

Posted by: Zaphod at October 1, 2004 06:43 PM

oh yeah..

that was so dumb,I mean at least if it was actually French food,neither toast nor fries are
though i'm sure you know.

Posted by: just me at October 2, 2004 04:16 AM
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