The Year of Challenged Books

Readers who have been with this ain’t livin’ for a while may remember The Book Project. In 2008, I pledged to write about every book I read and to read every book recommended or sent to me. It was exhausting, but also kind of fun, and I try to refrain from being bitter about the fact that several people have successfully monetised similar projects after the fact. The Book Project forced me to examine what I read, how I read, and how I interact with books.

For 2009 and 2010, I didn’t do any big blog projects, because, well, The Book Project was really demanding. But I’ve been casting about recently for some ideas because I’m ready to dive in again, and when I read Tortilla Curtain, an idea presented itself. I’m really fascinated by challenged books, and I thought it might be fun to spend a year reading some challenged books, exploring the challenges to those texts, and writing about them.

So, that’s the plan. I’m not going to limit myself to only reading challenged books, but I am going to try to read at least one challenged book every month, preferably a book I have not read before, and write about it. And I have a lot of reading material to choose from. Even I choose to focus just on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books, I have material coming out the gizzyboo. As part of each writeup, I’ll also do some research into the challenges filed and talk about the controversial material in each book.

I imagine, at the end of the year, I should have some thoughts on book challenges. On the kinds of texts selected for challenges, on the themes running through challenges, who challenges books, and how people fight challenges, including librarians, teachers, and enterprising students doing things like running challenged book libraries out of their lockers. Frequently challenged authors like Judy Blume and Laurie Halse Anderson have made a number of observations about how challenges and attempted bans work, and have pointed out that the response to complex, controversial, and even frightening topics shouldn’t be an attempt to close down conversation about them. Books still exist even if you try to stop people from reading them and the events they talk about still apply to the society around us, these things don’t go away by whisking books off school curricula and out of libraries.

I am struck by how many books on the frequently challenged list are children’s and young adult books. This makes sense to a certain extent because I think the bulk of banning probably involves middle school reading lists, where one would not expect to find a lot of books geared to adults (although kids that age are perfectly capable of reading literature aimed at adults). I think it may also have something to do with the fact that many children’s and YA authors use their books to talk about very real issues and to explore them in ways that may be challenging; most of the YA I read contains commentary on issues ranging from immigration to sexism, presented in a way designed to provoke conversation and discussion, to engage with the reader. And, of course, it includes things conservatives don’t like, like teens having sex and defying teachers.

Around 23% of book challenges take place in public libraries. This means that people are actively fighting to keep books out of the hands of not just children in specific classes or schools, but the general public. For some people, the library is the only way to access reading material. Books are expensive and they are bulky, two things that can become a significant problem for people with limited space, limited funds, no fixed address, and other issues. The library is, to me, kind of a democratic ideal, a place where anyone can access information and it is made freely available. It’s a critical part of the community.

Restricting access to books in libraries has profound impacts on people living in the community. Someone wanting a copy of The Chocolate War might not be able to just go out and pick one up at the bookstore. Book challenges prevent people from accessing information and ideas, prevent people from engaging with social issues, have a chilling effect on the distribution and dissemination of knowledge. Book banning doesn’t just ‘protect’ people from material that offends the delicate sensibilities of the person pushing for a ban. It also has the effect of restricting discussion and preventing people from being exposed to things they might have a very real need or desire to engage with.

How many rape victims benefit from reading Speak, for example? How many people find their voices through books, find the names for things that have happened to them in books, discover things about themselves through reading? I feel passionately about books and reading because I grew up in a house full of books and have opportunities to read all kinds of material when I was growing up, material that informed my view on the world and helped me identify things around me and laid the groundwork for things I read later.

The thought of someone pawing through my bookshelves to pull out objectionable content is deeply offensive to me, and I wonder what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t read certain key books in my youth. How would I feel about myself? How would I feel about the world around me? How would I interact and engage with other people?

By reading frequently challenged and banned books next year, I hope to explore the origins of banning and challenging, to learn a little more about US culture, and, perhaps, to learn something about myself.