Today’s title is actually clickbait, designed to draw you in—but not for bad purposes or money (“Only $19.99. There’s MORE! Order now and get a SECOND one FREE! Pay shipping only!) There are not 5 books that MUST be banned. Rather, there are five points to make on the subject of banning books.
- There is no such thing as banning books. (That’s what we call a switcheroo.) Recently at a local lumber store, I said that I needed new wood for a bench but was aware that it couldn’t be treated wood because of the arsenic—“Don’t want to be sitting on that…” The clerk rolled his eyes and said, “I hate that misnomer. They don’t use arsenic anymore. Treated wood is safe to sit on.” Since 2004. He used “misnomer” incorrectly, but the phrase “book ban” is just as inaccurate.
Although there is a Banned Book Week (September 18-24, 2022-you haven’t missed it!), the correct term is “challenged.” To be banned, a book must be prohibited, per Merriam-Webster. Removing a book from a library shelf has to do with access; sometimes that means putting it behind the counter, as used to happen with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
The key here may have more to do with determining appropriateness. A set of predictors includes one called Interest Level, organized by grade. This book is given UG (9-12), or, in other words, high school readers. When the novel has been restricted, as Carnegie Mellon University site explains: “There have been different reasons for the book being banned, including religious objections, homosexuality, violence, African history, rape, incest, drug abuse, explicit language, and sexual scenes. These challenges were all eventually overruled. In 2017, “The Color Purple” was successfully banned from all Texas State Prisons for explicit language and graphic depictions of violence.” No comment.
- “But what about…?” is not a good place to begin an argument. I will, however, draw your attention to Amazon’s criteria for not selling certain books:
“We don’t sell certain content including content that we determine is hate speech, promotes the abuse or sexual exploitation of children, contains pornography, glorifies rape or pedophilia, advocates terrorism, or other material we deem inappropriate or offensive.”
So a search on Amazon for “Bomb making” reveals only “bath bombs.” But you can buy Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s autobiography. You can buy Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, the classic case of a pedophiliac. The Amazon blurb: “But Vladimir Nabokov’s wise, ironic, elegant masterpiece owes its stature as one of the 20th century’s novels of record not to the controversy its material aroused but to its author’s use of that material to tell a love story that is shocking in its beauty and tenderness.” The “material” is the sexual exploitation of a girl beginning when she is 12. He does write well though. You can buy The God Makers: A Shocking Expose of What the Mormon Church Really Believes, a blatantly anti-Mormon book also available as a film. (Not to be confused with The Godmakers by Frank Herbert of Dune fame.) Catholic? No problem. For you Amazon has Hitler’s Pope, American Freedom and Catholic Power (not to be confused with Catholic Power vs. American Democracy), and, of course, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The list actually begins in 1581 with William of Orange and his Apologie.
Amazon does not sell The Poisonous Mushroom, an anti-Semitic children’s book from 1938, but Books-a-Million does. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, easily the most famous, they also don’t sell, but Thrift Books does. Muslim? There is always Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, if you want to be inclusive of anti-Semitic texts.
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is on Amazon though this site from India acknowledges it as a source of blasphemy for some in the Islamic world. If you’re a witch, not to worry unless your PTA wants to pull all the Harry Potter books. The series has been banned since the beginning for portraying magic at all. I’ve known parents who won’t allow their children to read these books.
- Which brings me to the idea of “sanitizing” libraries at all. Obviously, Amazon does it. The controversy over removing Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally after selling it for three years is summarized here. You can buy a summary of it by Fireside Reads now if you don’t want to buy the actual book at other retailers. This article contains a link to another article about books you also “shouldn’t” read because of a variety of reasons from sexism to boring-ism. Both are actually amusing, one rebutting the other, both sounding a bit self-satisfied. This brief pro-con article does what seems to be a theme among those who favor removing some books but not others but don’t see the irony. For example, the first Con quotes Justice William Brennan: “Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Unless it is ideas that are “dangerous.” So the series 13 Reasons Why received critical success though professionals from mental health groups saw it as romanticizing suicide. The conclusion of this thought is that the “sanitizing” of anything is impossible. The works are available, and the inclusion or removal remains completely subjective.
- A personal anecdote to support my next point: When one child was in the 3rd grade, I noticed some religious materials coming home. I asked his teacher about them. She was new and perhaps not versed in the ways of the PTA mom. Her response was that she asked kids if they’d like to do coloring about the Bible. Many did. I told her that this is illegal (Engel v. Vitale 1962) and used Justice Black’s reasoning, writing for the majority (6-1, by the way) ”Since Americans adhere to a wide variety of beliefs, it is not appropriate for the government to endorse any particular belief system. Student-led prayer at football games became another issue which the Court ruled on in 2000 when it was challenged by two students (one Catholic, one a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and—of course—their mothers) who noted that the prayers were sectarian but not their sects. In the little Texas town of Santa Fe, there may not have been representatives of religions other than Christian, but that is also part of the issue. If there is to be respect for all religions, then the use of a single source for prayer becomes a problem. And avoiding it is difficult, as the State of California learned when parents objected to the inclusion of Aztec and Yoruba chants or prayers or affirmations in the multicultural studies curriculum. The two sides agreed on a settlement in January 2022: no more chanting per the First Amendment.
- What not to read? I wasn’t serious about that. I’ve read most books on the “banned” lists from years past, the classic ones anyway. I acknowledge that the Bible has startling passages. I see both sides getting in a “moral panic” about censorship, for wildly differing reasons. But I’m not going to hand your child a Book of Mormon. I’d rather you didn’t hand mine The God Makers. Some argue that schools need to stick to reading, writing, and arithmetic. I don’t disagree with that. American scores are “middling” at best, per this Pew Research study for math and science proficiencies. I don’t know anything about Slovenia, but since I don’t, I assume we ought to be ahead of them. We’re not. But rankings are an oversimplification.
It’s a complicated topic. It shouldn’t be a political one. If both sides would read books, I think that would be great. If one side wants to reject the others’ choices, fine. There is a difference between access and promotion, which I think is the final question. If your choices are “correct” and mine are not? An impossible impasse.