What We Talk About When We Talk About Banned Books Week

The last week in September is Banned Books Week, one of the biggest weeks in libraries and the larger book world. This is the thirty-fifth year the American Library Association has drawn attention to the issue of challenges brought to remove books from public and school libraries and school curricula.

I have been known to go out in the world and one thing I have learned about talking to strangers about working at the library is that a lot of people don’t realize that librarians abide by the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, which includes commitments to protecting access to resources, patron privacy, and intellectual freedom. “Intellectual freedom” is the freedom to access information without restriction so that people may explore many sides of an idea. The ALA expands on this latter concept in the Freedom to Read Statement.

In my last year of my Master’s in Library and Information Science program, I took two courses that explored intellectual freedom in libraries. We got at the philosophical roots of the concept by reading portions of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In Chapter II of On Liberty, Mill talks about how limits on expression can be detrimental to society. He argues that by silencing ideas we cannot fully test the limits of our own ideals and thus can never arrive at the truth. Mill’s only proposed limitation to speech was that it should not harm the rights of others. I’ll admit philosophy has never been my subject and I am oversimplifying Mill here. If you’ve consumed any of the news lately you may have noticed we still grapple with these issues over 150 years later.

Books that get challenged run the gamut. James Joyce’s Modernist masterpiece Ulysses, a title often considered the pinnacle of high literature and whose density often requires a reader’s guide, went to trial for obscenity in the United States in 1933. (For more on the story of the trial, check out Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book.) On the other end of the spectrum, one of the most challenged books in the past decade is Captain Underpants, a series with titles like The Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants and which made my third-grade self laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. In 2015, the ALA made an infographic breaking down why books are challenged and who challenges them.

This year, I read three challenged books:

  • Persepolis (Vols. 1 and 2) by Marjane Satrapi. This graphic memoir follows Marjane Satrapi as she grows up in Iran and Europe in the 1980s. Marjane’s parents were Marxist intellectuals and her firsthand experiences of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War teach readers about life in a society that becomes more and more restrictive. Marjane’s rejection of her school dress code and her love of heavy metal aren’t just teenage rebellion—she risks the wrath of a fundamentalist government that had tortured her family and friends. Persepolis was heavily challenged in 2014, including administrative removal of the book from Chicago Public Schools.

  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This novel is the diary of Celie, a young African-American woman living in Georgia in the 1930s. Celie is undereducated, poor, and a survivor of multiple types of abuse, and in addition to her tough individual circumstances the novel also explores sexism, racism, family, religion, and sexuality. This novel tackles really heavy stuff, but is ultimately uplifting as Celie and her circle come into their own in a world where a lot is stacked against them. (If the dialect writing style throws you off, the audiobook is excellent.) This book has a history of challenges dating back to the 1980s.

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This novel paints a bleak portrait of a fundamentalist future America in which women cannot read or earn money, and those who have escaped widespread infertility are farmed out to bear children to the men of the ruling class. These women are called Handmaids, and we see their lives through the eyes of one called Offred—literally “Of Fred,” the name of the man whose house she is sent to live in. This novel has been challenged consistently since its publication. In the past year, it’s become visible in the public eye: the streaming service Hulu adapted it as a TV series and many political protesters have begun dressing as Handmaids.

Other than being challenged, these books share one important element: they are all about compromised intellectual freedom. Characters in these works live in environments where information is kept out of their hands, their exploration of ideas is denied, and their expression is limited by forces that appear stronger than the individual. Nevertheless, they remain resilient in spite of their respective obstacles.

I do not think most people who challenge books have bad intentions, but it is hard to ignore the irony of people trying to block access to books that center on blocked access to ideas. The ALA has noted recently that many challenged books contain diverse perspectives, especially LGBTQ content. If you take this information alongside findings from studies that have indicated reading fiction helps develop empathy, we get back to John Stuart Mill’s idea that people can develop their own beliefs by rigorously testing them with other ideas.

At the library, we select a broad array of materials in many formats and we shelve by subject in nonfiction. That means if you were browsing in the political science section, you might find Bernie Sanders’s Outsider in the White House on the same shelf as Rand Paul’s Taking a Stand. With your library card, you are free to check out one or both of these titles (and dozens more) free of cost in order to develop your own opinion. You can check out novels to learn about a life that is radically different from your own.

Banned Books Week is about more than just books. Whether you’re reading a US Senator’s vision of America’s future or the side-splitting saga of a hero in tighty-whities, you are testing your perspective and proclivities against those of someone else. The books I listed above changed me. From reading, I was able to judge them, learn from them, and speculate about how they apply to the world around me. Intellectual freedom is founded on the idea that a healthy democracy demands an informed citizenry. Whether you want to be entertained or educated (or both), the library is here to meet your need to explore and evaluate information.

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association

Written by Lauren on September 28, 2017


Shelly on September 29, 2017


Wonderfully, wonderfully well said! What the world needs now, is empathy, sweet empathy (which hopefully can lead to love). Thank you so much!

Anonymous on September 29, 2017


Great and timely post! As my husband has often said, to entertain a different idea, does not mean you endorse it. Further, the need quash challenging ideas stems from fear and suggests a lack of confidence in the veracity of one's own tenets.