Banned Books Week Is a Crock

That’s good news! No one bans books anymore. We won!

Banned Books.
It’s not as bad as it used to be.

Photo by Evlakhov Valeriy/Shutterstock

The latest story about censorship in America began when a Knoxville, Tennessee, woman named Jackie Sims found out that her 15-year-old son had been assigned to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks over the summer. Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book tells the true story of a poor black woman whose cancerous cervical cells became the basis for medical advances including the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization without her knowledge; it’s a best-selling, critically acclaimed account about science, race, ethics, and family. But Sims told a local TV station that she “consider[s] the book pornographic,” and wanted it out of the hands of all students in the district.

“Just in time for #BannedBooksWeek, a parent in Tennessee has confused gynecology with pornography,” Skloot announced on her Facebook page. The story took off from there. By the end of the whole kerfuffle, Sims’ objection had been covered by the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, People, Salon, Jezebel, and beyond. Every right-thinking person agreed: This was an outrage.

As Skloot’s response indicated, the brouhaha got a boost from the approach of Banned Books Week, an annual event promoted with much fanfare by the American Library Association and other organizations. This year’s event began Sunday and runs through the end of the week, with parties and “read-outs” all over the country. It’s a cause that’s easy to support; Banned Books Week is well-intentioned, and it’s unquestionably run by the good guys. In the battle between a prudish mom and freedom, it’s not hard to pick sides. But in feeding off of conflicts like Sims vs. the school board, Banned Books Week also traffics in fear-mongering over censorship, when in fact the truth is much sunnier: There is basically no such thing as a “banned book” in the United States in 2015.

The statistics certainly sound alarming. Since Banned Books Week was instituted in 1982, the event’s website informs us, 11,300 books have been challenged. In 2014 alone, 311 books were banned or challenged in schools and libraries in the United States, with many more cases unreported. It would be easy to assume that the literal banning of books is still a routine occurrence in the United States.

But take a closer look, and there’s much less for freedom-loving readers to be concerned with. The modifier “banned or challenged” contains a lot of wiggle room, for one. A “challenge,” in the ALA’s definition, is a “formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” By that definition, Sims’ one-woman freak-out in Tennessee qualifies as a “challenge,” despite the fact that it posed no real threat to Skloot’s book, let alone the “freedom to read.”

Once upon a time, book bans were a serious issue in the United States. The Comstock Law, passed by Congress in 1873, made it illegal to circulate “obscene literature.” Even classics like The Canterbury Tales fell under that description in the eyes of Victorian moralists, and in the middle of the last century, publishers and booksellers of forbidden novels including Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill were actually prosecuted in court. But in the years since, social and legal tolerance for censorship plummeted. A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Island Trees School District v. Pico, ruled that local school boards can’t remove books from their libraries simply because they’re offended by them.

Once upon a time, if your local library and bookstores didn’t carry a book, it would have been very difficult to procure it elsewhere. But of course we’re now living in an era of unprecedented access to reading material. If your local library declines to carry what you want to read these days, there has been no time in history where it’s easier for you to read it anyway.

Much of the rhetoric around Banned Books Week elides not just the difference between the past and the present but some other important distinctions: the difference between “bans” from public libraries and from school libraries, and between inclusion in school curricula and general availability in a library. A parent merely questioning the presence of a book on a required reading list is the same, to the organizations that run Banned Books Week, as the book being removed from circulation at the local public library. But the former, I would argue, is part of a reasonable local conversation about public education (even if the particular parental preferences are unreasonable). The latter comes closer to a “book ban.”

And just how common is it for a public library to remove a book from its shelves in response to a complaint from a censorious citizen? The ALA maintains an interactive project, “Mapping Censorship,” that displays cases of book bans and challenges across the United States (and a few stray cases overseas) between 2007 and 2012. I clicked through all 290 examples and found 27 cases that likely concerned public libraries as opposed to school libraries or school curricula. (The descriptions aren’t always clear, but when in doubt I erred on the side of assuming a library was public.) Of the 27 cases in which a book was challenged at a public library, the ALA documents a whopping four cases that definitively ended with a book being completely removed from circulation. There are likely more, of course, but suffice it to say there is no tidal wave of censorship inundating our nation’s libraries.

Far more common are cases in which citizens challenge books after their children encounter them in classrooms or school libraries. Most cases documented by the ALA concern fears about “adult” content: bad language; violence; and, over and over, sexual content. Some of the challenges have a certain quirky charm. In Miami, a book was removed from an elementary school library because “it did not depict an accurate portrayal of life in Cuba.” In Virginia, the first Sherlock Holmes book was taken off a sixth-grade required reading list because it casts Mormonism in a negative light. (To be fair, it really does!). And in Oregon, a book about forests was removed from an elementary school because it apparently denigrated loggers. These events merit attention, especially in cases where the books are ultimately removed—and there’s evidence that the small annual number of these instances is ticking upward. But the bigger story—a truer picture of the state of censorship in America—is that actual “bans” remain very, very rare.

Some, or even all, of these challenges may be misguided, silly, or narrow-minded. But even if you’re firmly opposed to “banning books”—and I am!—it’s hard to argue that parents should have no right to weigh in on what their children read at school. There’s an enormous difference between parents saying a book shouldn’t appear on their kid’s required reading list and a citizen demanding that adults should have no access to a book at a public library. And it should shock no one that in a country of 300 million people, there are a few hundred cases each year in which someone objects to a particular book’s availability, especially to children.

And in the clear majority of cases, the challenge ends the way that Jackie Sims’ objection to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ended. The school board already had a policy in place regarding sensitive instructional materials, and Sims’ son was provided with an alternate text. In media interviews, district officials seemed unmoved by Sims’ demands that no other students should have access to the book, either. (Sims has said she’ll keep appealing.) So in one corner were the media, the masses, the author, and the school board. In the other, one woman in East Tennessee. This Banned Books Week, instead of hand-wringing about a nonexistent wave of censorship, let’s celebrate the obvious: The books won.