Books As “Surplus Property”: A New Angle for Censorship

Novelist Dave Eggers calls Rapid City book destruction an “unconscionable horror”

Arguments over censorship have become all too common at school board meetings. In South Dakota, the Rapid City school district tried to sidestep that public discussion with a new tactic – listing targeted books at the end of a surplus property list.

After public outcry, the school board delayed a vote on the books, originally tucked into the board’s consent agenda as “surplus property” recommended for destruction.

Weeding” damaged or outdated books isn’t unusual for libraries or schools. But the five targeted books were recent purchases, and a panel of teachers requested them as part of new 12th-grade curriculum.

The books include Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Allison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were: A Novel. In all, the district targeted more than 350 copies.

Novelist Eggers, founder of McSweeney’s and cofounder of 826 National’s network of youth writing and tutoring centers, offered to buy copies of any of the books for Rapid City-area seniors through an area bookseller or by email request.

“The mass destruction of books by school boards is an unconscionable horror,” Eggers said in a statement posted to McSweeney’s. “And the freethinking young people of South Dakota shouldn’t be subjected to it. For every copy the school board destroys, let’s add a new one to the local circulation.”

He has announced plans to travel to Mitzi’s Books on May 16 for a banned-books event, one day before the Rapid City board is next scheduled to meet.

While Eggers’ efforts have helped shine a spotlight on the incident, the district’s tactics remain alarmingly in the shadows. The books–originally selected by a districtwide panel of teachers for a new English 12 course for Rapid City high school seniors–appear near the end of a list that includes broken computers, extra fire extinguishers, and ink cartridges designated for the recycle pile. Next to each title, its suggested fate: “To Be Destroyed.”

Surplus Property

The district’s public information officer told the Rapid City Journal that administrators recommended the district pull the books because of questionable content. “The building administrators and the Director of Teaching, Learning, and Innovation agreed on this decision, based on the content of the books,” Caitlin Pierson said.

The move to destroy the books is “disturbing and disdainful,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education.

“While books are being banned all over the country, few have tried to ‘destroy’ them in such a callous or clandestine manner,” he said in a May 6 statement. “All kinds of questions remain about why administrators banned this set of newly adopted books, and how they ended up literally on the chopping block.

“But the prospect of destruction also reflects the uncompromising extremism now pervading many public school districts. Books, words, and works of literature are being seen as so objectionable that they must be obliterated.”

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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