Not All Banned Books

Banned Books Week leaves out some of the classics

Miami-Dade College rose to the challenge of hosting this year’s Banned Books Week from September 18 to 24. Ostensibly, the purpose of the annual event, which began in 1982, is to celebrate our fundamental right to freedom of expression and draw attention to works of fiction and nonfiction that schools, bookstores, and libraries have decided not to carry because their content is unacceptable to the self-appointed upholders of morality and enforcers of correct opinion.

The crisis is real. Intellectual and creative freedom are under attack these days from both the right and the left, and few causes are as important as defending the right of authors and scholars to write and publish. We need many more events devoted to the preservation and advancement of our liberties.

A look at the works featured in this year’s Banned Books Week suggests that progressive causes du jour dominated the event. Meanwhile, politically incorrect works containing allegedly insensitive content that got banned, and, in some cases, unbanned in recent months have gotten short shrift.

Some people, very watchful when it comes to threats from the right, refuse to recognize the threat to freedom of expression posed by the left, or simply fail to care if a few dead white male authors and their works go down the memory hole.

The ALA’s Function

The central role of the American Library Association in determining which books, and causes, will feature prominently in Banned Books Week is unmistakable. In an email exchange with Book and Film Globe, Sue Arrowsmith, Miami-Dade College’s director of media relations, emphasized this point.

“Banned Books Week is a national celebration sponsored by the American Library Association. During that week, academic, public, and school libraries across the nation put together activities highlighting challenged books with the purpose of educating everyone about censorship [and] the values of literature. Miami-Dade College, like so many schools in the region and beyond, has participated every year,” Arrowsmith stated.

Arrowsmith went on to suggest that the festival goes about promoting banned books in a neutral manner, without favoritism to any message or theme.

“We don’t necessarily highlight specific books/authors or themes at MDC. We focus on creating activities and events to highlight the importance of reading and engage the student body in conversations,” she wrote.

That may all sound well and good. But by the organizers’ own admission, the selection of books to feature in the event was heavily dependent on lists compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the ALA. And, for its part, that office admits that a high degree of subjectivity goes into the drawing up of the lists and that they are quite far from comprehensive. The office’s website states, “The lists are based on information from media stories and voluntary reports sent to OIF from communities across the U.S.”

In case the point still is not clear, the website further states, “The Top 10 lists are only a snapshot of book challenges. Surveys indicate that 82-97% of book challenges—documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries—remain unreported and receive no media.”

Given the methodology here, it is fair to characterize the lists of suppressed books, which determined what titles would feature prominently during Banned Books Week, as lists of those works that individual librarians, booksellers, and others who took it upon themselves to file reports to the OIF would like to see circulate more freely. They are far from neutral or thorough.

In fact, virtually of the titles listed on the OIF’s list of “Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2021” embrace racial and sexual identity politics, sexual explicitness, and/or an anti-police agenda.

Source: American Library Association.

The list for 2020 was slightly more neutral and included a couple of works—Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men—that have fallen afoul of politically correct sensibilities.

But it is clear that the OIF put forward a monochromatic list for 2021 based on subjective criteria. Hence it is no surprise the Banned Books Week Twitter feed, which links to a website run by the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Banned Books Week Coalition, retweeted a high volume of content from such left-leaning sources as PEN America, the Authors Guild, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and author Jonathan Friedman.

The heavy preponderance of content from such bodies leaves little doubt that Banned Books Week chose to take an explicitly political stance going beyond a purely objective and neutral defense of intellectual and creative freedom wherever and whenever it may be under attack. A typical retweet is the one of an announcement for a PEN America event in Detroit on September 24, which reads: “Join us for a #BannedBooksWeek in-person discussion that celebrates Black gay literature in all of its permutations—& offers strategies to push back against escalating book bans driven by anti-Blackness & homophobia.”

You will search hard to find tweets or retweets of notifications of events focused on the plight of the authors of politically incorrect content in the current environment. But that doesn’t mean that the threat to writers associated, fairly or unfairly, with the values and speech of a less egalitarian past is not real. Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird have come under attack in Florida jurisdictions.

In April 2022, the Miami New Times published lists of books banned in schools in Florida counties since July 2021. The lists established that the school district of Indian River County, one of the wealthiest in the nation, had made Brave New World and Of Mice and Men unavailable, while Palm Beach County suppressed To Kill a Mockingbird. One might expect a banned books fair taking place in Miami to call attention to this travesty.

But opinion is not settled and bad decisions sometimes get reversed. Another resource, the “Florida Censorship Action” database maintained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, tells us that Brave New World is no longer suppressed in any way in Indian River County and that Of Mice and Men is not banned outright there at this time. Rather, they have “restricted” the status of the latter work.

According to the same database, To Kill a Mockingbird has since “returned,” and Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Governor Ron DeSantis, stated in a tweet that the book is not currently banned in Florida but did face censorship in California in 2020 along with other works of literature.

To Kill ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

All venues and organizations taking part in Banned Books Week should do their utmost to protest the troubles that To Kill a Mockingbird has faced. That Harper Lee’s novel underwent even temporary suppression is an outrage exemplifying the solipsistic, illogical mentality of the social justice warriors.

The book may contain a few terms that we in 2022 consider dated and offensive. But the irony of this book’s suppression by the woke authorities is supreme, for To Kill a Mockingbird offers some of the most eloquent denunciations of racism in any American novel. In his famous courtroom speech in Chapter 20, lawyer Atticus Finch repeatedly decries “the evil assumptions” that racists in his community make about the character of black citizens. He goes on to argue passionately that people in general, not this or that race or ethnicity, are flawed: “There is not a person in this community has not told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.”

One wonders what those who ban To Kill a Mockingbird make of the fact that Aaron Sorkin, one of the most outspoken liberals in Hollywood, adapted the novel for the stage in 2018, and that, according to an account by theater critic Kyle Smith in The New Criterion, the play’s critique of bigotry and intolerance, and its appeal to our shared humanity, were so powerful and eloquent that they brought members of the audience to tears.

Banned Books Week

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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