Banned Books Week: Just a Lot of Propaganda Says Jonah Goldberg

Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

Banned Books Weeks 2011 will be observed September 24-October 1.


Jonah Goldberg claims that Banned Books Week (BBW) is nothing but hype. In a column he penned for USA Today in early September, Goldberg wrote that BBW “is an exercise in propaganda.” He continued, “For starters, as a legal matter no book in America is banned, period, full stop (not counting, I suppose, some hard-core illegal child porn or some such out there). Any citizen can go to a bookstore or and buy any book legally in print — or out of print for that matter.”

Evidently, Goldberg thinks that books which have been removed from the shelves of public and school libraries “due to pressure from someone who isn’t a librarian or a teacher” don’t count as “banned books.” He appears to believe they can only be considered banned books if they have been banned on a national level. So what if books are removed from school and public libraries? One can always get a copy at a book store or from Right?

Goldberg got into the numbers of challenged books to demonstrate how “overhyped” stories about banned books are. He wrote that reported challenges had dropped from 513 in 2008 to 348 in 2010—and that the “historic norm is a mere 400 to 500 bans or challenges” a year. He said there are almost 100,00 public schools in this country educating approximately 50 million students—as well as 33,000 private schools and 10,000 public libraries. According to Goldberg’s math—if there were “500 parent-driven ‘bans or challenges’ in a given year in public schools, that would mean for every 200 public schools, or every 100,000 students, at least one parent even complained about an age-inappropriate book. What an epidemic!”

Reported challenges…a mere 400 to 500 bans or challenges…only one book challenge per 100,000 students. What’s the fuss all about? Why should people be concerned? Maybe the American Library Association, public libraries, and schools in this country should only begin to worry when the censorship, challenging, and banning of books becomes an epidemic. Why address the problem when the numbers are so small?

Well, one could conclude that many book challenges aren’t reported. As noted on the ALA website: “We do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges as research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported.” And I have little doubt that there are many librarians, teachers, readers, and defenders of the First Amendment who feel that an historic norm of 400 to 500 challenges a year are a few hundred too many.

I have to wonder at Goldberg’s motives for writing his column. Was it so he could get in a dig at teachers’ unions? Here’s what he wrote about them:

“These days, teachers unions are fond of claiming that apathetic parents deserve more of the blame for the woeful state of education today. Maybe so. But a national policy of bullying parents interested in what their kids are reading hardly seems like the best way to encourage them. Indeed, from these numbers, the real scandal might be that so few books are “banned or challenged.’”

I’m not sure how Goldberg drew the conclusion that there is a “national policy” of bullying parents who are interested in what their children read.  He didn’t provide any proof that there was. And why  would Goldberg suggest that the real scandal is that so few books are being banned or challenged? Does he think that more books should be banned and challenged every year?

 Molly Raphael, President of the American Library Association, responded to Goldberg’s column. She wrote:

 “When a library removes a book from its shelves because someone disapproves of the ideas or opinions contained in the book, that is censorship. When it is done by publicly funded schools and libraries — government agencies — it is a violation of the First Amendment.”

Raphael said we should remember that when a book is removed from a library it is an act of censorship that affects an entire community—not just one individual or one family. She also said that public libraries “serve everyone, including those who are too young or too poor to buy their own books or own a computer.” She added that the reason librarians and library users celebrate BBW is as “a testament to the strength of our freedom in the United States. We celebrate the freedom to read because we all know that we are so fortunate to live in a country that protects our freedom to choose what we want to read. If you doubt this, just ask anyone from a totalitarian society. That is why we draw attention to acts of censorship that chill the freedom to read.”

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.

You may kill him — another will be born.

Deeds and words shall be recorded.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Poland


The lives of artists are more fragile than their creations. The poet Ovid was exiled by Augustus to a little hell-hole on the Black Sea called Tomis, but his poetry has outlasted the Roman Empire. Osip Mandelstam died in a Stalinist work camp, but his poetry has outlived the Soviet Union. Federico García Lorca was killed by the thugs of Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco, but his poetry has survived that tyrannical regime.

 We can perhaps bet on art to win over tyrants. It is the world’s artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight.

~ Salman Rushdie, 19 April 2011

Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010 (Out of 348 challenges as reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom)

  1. And Tango Makes Three*, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
    Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
    Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicit
  4. Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  6. Lush, by Natasha Friend
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  7. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
    Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  8. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
    Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint
  9. Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
    Reasons:  homosexuality and sexually explicit
  10. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
    Reasons: religious viewpoint and violence

 (*And Tango Makes Three is a picture book.)

 Sources and Further Reading

Column: Banned Books Week is just hype (USA Today)

Banned Books Week celebrates freedom to read (USA Today)

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read (ALA)

Frequently Challenged Books (ALA)

Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (ALA)

Banned Books Week 2011 (Amnesty International)

The 11 Most Surprising Banned Books (PHOTOS, POLL) (Huffington Post)

Letter re: Slaughterhouse Five Ban in Republic, MO (National Coalition Against Censorship)

First Lady Laura Bush Cancels Poetry Gathering Fearing Anti-War Poems: Democracy Now! Hosts Its Own Poetry Slam with Def Poetry Jam Stars Staceyann Chin, Suheir Hammad and Steve Colman (Democracy Now, 2/7/2003)

Other Turley Blog Posts on the Censorship, Challenging, and Banning of Books

Publisher Announces Intention to Edit Huckleberry Finn To Remove N-Word

On the Banning, Censorship, and Challenging of Books

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?—I See Anti-Marxists Looking at Me!

151 thoughts on “Banned Books Week: Just a Lot of Propaganda Says Jonah Goldberg”

  1. I belive everyone is overreacting. Yes, I believe book banning is a problem, and at least in public schools and libraries, should be illegal. When children get bad ideas, or negative influences, it is rarely from books, but more often from television, music, and other things that are becoming more and more vulgar with every passing day. Books, especially books of the past such as Huckelberry Finn, teach us valuble lessons, and show us the result of negative behavior. Also, children know the difference between real and pretend. Children who read Little House on the Prarie do not literally try to build and move into sod houses, just as children who read Harry Potter do not really try to use spells, but only pretend to do so in their play.

  2. Well, all this time later I reread this. Turley promotes the 2010 Top 10 list from the ALA. The ALA faked that list and I have a recording of one of the listed authors essentially saying just that. And after I exposed the fake, And Tango Makes Three stopped its 5 year likely faked run on the list. So that puts what Turley said in a new light. Go listen to the author exposing the ALA yourselves:

  3. Woah this weblog is wonderful i love studying your articles. Stay up the good work! You realize, lots of persons are looking round for this info, you could aid them greatly.

  4. Mike S.,

    Reading widely is also the best education for one who wants to become a writer.

    I felt it was so important to read aloud to my young students because some were struggling readers who wouldn’t have been able to read the books that I read by themselves. That said, many of those students who had difficulty reading were very bright children.

  5. Elaine,

    My wife and I always read to our girls, who were particularly fond of Shel Silverstein, Seuss and Dahl. For me it was always one of the great pleasures of parenting. My absolute favorite and theirs was something called “The Pokey Little Puppy” which was appropriate for two year olds and up.

    I taught myself to read at five so I don’t really remember my folks reading to me. However, my parents and older brother were avid readers and growing up in that environment, with the many boxes of their old books started me on my way. To me reading is the key to verbal acuity and that is the key to all learning.

  6. Mike S.,

    I think reading aloud to children is of great import. It should be an integral part of every child’s education. I loved reading to my students–and I have fond memories of reading to my daughter. My husband was the one who usually read her the Roald Dahl books–which she loved. Dahl wrote a number of children’s books that have been highly challenged.

  7. Reading is the greatest interest any child can have. From reading all other learning becomes possible. A child’s reading curiosity should be given full rein and they should never be denied a book that interests them.Sometime that may make parents and others uncomfortable and that is too bad. The clarion call of those who would make books unavailable is saving a child’s innocence. Those who do so are doing it becuse of narrow fears that they themselves have and frankly in my opinion are close-minded fools. My reading was never restricted by my parents and my children’s reading was never restricted in turn. I think we all have turned out all right and are moral people, living moral lives.

  8. Dan,

    “I’ll likely not respond further to you because I sense you will never see the difference between a ban and the application of a selection policy that every school has.”


    I am fully aware that libraries have selection policies. I was a school librarian. I know the difference between book selection and book banning. The subject of this post is not about library selection policies. It’s about the issue of people and groups challenging books and trying to have them removed from libraries and reading lists. It’s about censorship and the banning of books. You’re talking about apples; I’m talking about oranges.

    I’m not sure why you’re accusing me of not understanding the difference between a ban and an application of a selection policy. Where did I give any indication of that in my post or any of my comments?

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