In the US, with the First Amendment protecting free speech, I have not imagined a time I would be discussing banning books, but here it is. I’ll be discussing some of the books that I read during my enforced time away from the computer, but another matter has more urgency, I think.
With little notice, society has taken upon itself the banning of certain books. I looked at lists from 2019 and from 2020 listing the top ten banned books, usually by some library. School libraries were the most apt to ban the books. Technically taking a book out of a library is not “banning,” because presumable people can go elsewhere and find the book or perhaps buy their own copy.
It is troubling that books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain ( a Bantam Classics, published in 1885); To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (publised by Harper Perennial in 1960); and Lord of the Flies, make these lists, but the idea that they are banned is not quite accurate. Rather, more often than not, concerned parents who found the content of certain books, often required reading, to be offensive, complained to their school and their library or administration removed them.
However, in 2019 the US moved a step closer to actually banning a book:
In 2019, two New Jersey lawmakers introduced a non-binding resolution calling on school districts in the state to remove the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—considered to be one of the greatest in American literature—from their curricula.
Government, “suggesting” to schools what people can or can’t read.
More recently, however, “cancel culture” has influenced the withdrawal of six Dr. Seuss books from publication. Complaints caused the organization to rethink the books they put in print:
As adored as Dr. Seuss is by millions around the world for the positive values in many of his works, including environmentalism and tolerance, there has been increasing criticism in recent years over the way Blacks, Asians and others are drawn in some of his most beloved children’s books, as well as in his earlier advertising and propaganda illustrations.(ABC news report)
Finally, last year the organization holding the reins of the Dr. Seuss legacy, decided to stop publication of a select number of titles.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. (from the Dr. Seuss Enterprises statement, as quoted by Deadline)
And so the dominoes begin to fall.
The canceling of books in a little confusing. For instance, some of the books on the 2020 list of “banned” books were removed because Christian parents objected to graphic sex portrayed in the book, some because of vulgar language or similar questions about age-inappropriate material. Should parents be allowed to make those decisions for their children? Should they push for what they believe to be inappropriate books to be removed from their school library?
On the other hand should the hypersensitivity of a culture in the 21st century remove books written earlier, often with the very intent to eliminate the objectionable behavior about which people complain?
No matter where people stand, I think the most dangerous piece of this puzzle is the involvement of a state government which has moved the needle toward actual censorship in the form of banning books.
How can we discuss ideas if we are not allowed to read anything about those ideas?
As I see it, the same “banning” approach is being employed by the “legacy” media and the tech giants that control social media. How else is a story published by the fourth largest newspaper in the US squelched? If our approach to news stories comes under the control of those holding only one view, how are we not turning our those reports into propaganda? I have to admit, I am strongly reminded of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in which the protagonist has the job of rewriting the past to suit the needs of the Party in control of the government.
In other words, I see books as key elements of our society—on one end giving a prescient look at our society, and on the other end, receiving the brunt of criticism caused by a climate of offense. The latter should concern readers and writers alike. Even when no harm is intended, when humor and caricatures are widespread such as in the canceled Dr. Seuss books, when the subject of a book is purposefully to expose a wrong attitude which has become “sensitive,” books are subject to negative treatment, if not actual banning.
To be honest, I’m surprised that Gone With The Wind is not on a recent banned book list. I’m pretty sure that Uncle Tom’s Cabin found its way on one such list not long ago. These books show life in the South during the era of slavery. To Kill A Mockingbird showed life in the segregated South during the 20th century. How are we to talk about the whys and the needed changes if we don’t have some look at what those times were like?