What’s behind the surge in book banning?

If I tell you subjects covered by the novel include incest, rape, racial hate, adolescent sex, physical abuse, the F-word, the N-word and pedophelia, would you think it is suitable for children?

A selection of some banned books (Illustration: PBS)

The book that has been “banned” in some school districts is “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s first novel, and a Nobel Prize winner.

So let’s talk about book banning.

What does that mean, exactly?

As a journalist — and an author — I reflexively lean against any kind of censorship, banning, or book burning, but keeping “The Bluest Eye” out of the hands of pre-teen children is not censorship, it is exercising parental authority. Can, or should, it be read in high school is a different matter.

Quite aside from some of the foul themes, the shifting narrator, and density of Morrison’s writing makes it a tough slog, even for me. 

Yes, it won a Nobel Prize, and I can tell you that works of art that appeal to critics’ tastes are not necessarily the ones that have wide popular appeal. 

Morrison’s books do have wide appeal, but within a relatively small pool.

I chose “The Bluest Eye” to read because a friend told me he had heard the book was removed — stolen, he heard, or checked out and not returned — from the Free Library of Springfield Township.

Was it some kind of a plot by right-wing, racist book-burners?

No. The librarian, at her computer keyboard, told me the library had two copies, and they were both still on the shelves. Nor had she heard anything about books disappearing from libraries in Montgomery County.

An email to the American Library Association asking for information about possible book disappearances was not answered.I know the book has been banned in certain jurisdictions.

The Springfield librarian told me that books are removed from libraries as their popularity wanes. 

So when I hear reports of books being banned, I want to know exactly what that means.

Generally speaking, “banning” means a book has been removed from school curriculums and/or public libraries because a person or group has objected to its content.

An attempt to get a book removed is called a challenge. Most public schools and libraries have boards made up of elected officials (or people appointed by elected officials) who have the power to remove books from the schools and libraries they oversee.

Decades ago, I remember some on the Left wanted to ban “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because the N-word was used many times. To me, that is ridiculous, as was the compromise of deleting the word. The use of “nigger” is an important cultural marker of how things were when Mark Twain wrote. Here, I am quoting the actual word for purposes of illustration. it should not be deleted from the language in all cases.

Now, the Right (hello, Mothers for Liberty) seems to be the main actor, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” are under attack.

Others on the hit list include these classics: 

“The Great Gatsby,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Color Purple,” “Ulysses,” and  “Beloved.”

 All those books were from the last century.

Current books under attack may have gay or gender themes, which critics often liken to grooming, seducing, or normalizing the depicted behavior. Some parents are worried about pornography, which I question as a concern because any kid with a cell phone — and they all have cell phones — has instant access to porn videos, like it or not.

Those cell phones, through Google, let’s say, also give kids access to anything about gender and LGBT themes.

As a matter of fact, I believe cell phones and social media are the main driver of the explosion of teens and young adults who claim to be nonbinary. Emphasis on “claim,” but that’s a subject for another day.

To me, there is a difference between banning a book from school libraries and from public libraries. There is also a difference between banning a book from all students, and restricting a book by the age of the student.

My novel “Press Card” (still available through https://www.presscardthebook.com/books ) is not age appropriate for pre-high school readers because of God awful cursing, several passages of casual sex and interracial sex, and mocking of authority. It may not even belong in school libraries.

When I read that a book has been “banned,” I want to dig in and see if it is actually a ban, or a restriction, and what is the basis for it.

Generally, even in schools, I oppose banning, but I support age restrictions, just like we have in the movies through a rating system. Information about content is not surpressing content.

18 thoughts on “What’s behind the surge in book banning?”

  1. Stu, No school library has space for every book ever written. Someone has to decide which books will get valuable shelf space. We may not always agree with the choices, but that doesn’t mean that a book not chosen has been “banned”.

  2. Thank you for this mornings wisdom. I sort of recall a book being banned back in the early 60’s titled Candy. It was a so called “dirty book” published in paperback we teenaged boys hid under the bed like a copy of Playboy magazine. The book is probably available now. Happy Independence Day.

    1. My “dirty book” was “A Stone for Danny Fisher.” it had sex.
      When my mother caught me with it, she said any book you want to read is OK with me.
      She thought READING was important.

  3. Stu

    This says it all.

    Generally, even in schools, I oppose banning, but I support age restrictions, just like we have in the movies through a rating system. Information about content is not surpressing content.

    Posted in: Culture, Uncategorized

  4. Banning: no. Age/school restricting: yes.
    My favorite book is Where’s Papa? All-time funniest book I’ve ever read, and that includes anything by Jimmy Carter.

  5. At West Catholic In 1969 my freshman year in American Literature class our teacher got sick. The substitute teacher was Jack Jones, he later became a TV Broadcaster for the local CBS station. Mr. Jones had the class read The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Our parents found out and complained to the school administration. The end result after the meeting with the parents we students were allowed to read the book and submit their personal reviews. The students loved the book. The characters in the book were fascinating to us. However, there is a fine line between learning and indoctrination. Professional educators should know the difference between education and indoctrination.

  6. Perhaps children should be prohibited from reading the Bible. After all, it contains depictions of and references to rape, adultery, incest, fratricide, manipulation of sexual organs, bestiality, transvestism and necrophilia. What kind of pervert believes kids should have unfettered access to such writings?

    1. Yeah, there’s a long line of kids demanding to read the Bible. 😄
      And it SHOULD be age restricted, partly for the reasons you mention.
      Restricted, not banned. Understand the difference?

  7. In the original, uncensored version of “Huckleberry Finn” Jim himself uses the notorious N-word.
    Why? Because it is the only word he knows to describe people like himself.
    In his innocence/ignorance he has no idea that it’s a slur. Jim is not stupid–far from it. He is ignorant because, as a slave he cannot, by law, be educated. Huck should, by law, be educated, but rebels against it.
    Twain uses this contrast, and this language, to make a point. The Black man would love to learn.
    The white boy (dirt poor, not privileged), sees no point in schooling.

  8. The Scopes monkey folks will be “banning” books on evolution… we could all go goose stepping down Broad street to the big barn fires of yesteryears……

  9. Very nice piece, Stu. I don’t think any sane person has a problem with age restrictions on reading material. I sure don’t. And yes, the bible is a book that should ABSOLUTELY have age restrictions, as should ANY religious dogma. Let your damned kids grow up and make their own, adult decisions on god and religion rather than shoving it down their throats before they are old enough to make their own decisions about that stuff. THAT is the very definition of “grooming” that so many on the right seem to be all fired up about these days. I had it shoved down my throat at a young age, but something always seemed “off” to me regardless. When I grew into adulthood, I realized it was the simple illogic and insanity of it all that was causing me angst. And here I am today, an atheist. The illogic of the bible (and other religious tomes) can often do that to readers.

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