Jonah Goldberg was not pleased with Banned Books Week: Just a Lot of Propaganda Says Jonah Goldberg, the post that I wrote for the Turley blog last Sunday. In my post, I criticized Goldberg’s op-ed titled Banned Books Week is just hype, which appeared in USA Today on September 5th. Goldberg responded to my criticism of his op-ed with a blog post titled Banned Book B.S. Cont’d at the National Review Online (NRO). He said that my effort to come “to the rescue of the Banned Book Week crowd” was “entirely underwhelming.” He added, “A big chunk of her response restates my op-ed while casting her incomprehension as if it’s a rebuttal.”
Goldberg said my insinuation that the threat of book banning is a more serious problem than we realize because of the book challenges that go unreported to ALA (American Library Association) was “incredibly lame.”
Goldberg: The ALA has been saying this for decades, even as the annual rate of reported cases has remained remarkably constant — and low! — for about a quarter century. Moreover, many of the reported cases listed by the ALA are little more than disputes over whether a book is age-appropriate. These disputes don’t end in books being pulled from shelves. They are merely “challenges” — which the BBWers lump in with “bans.” If your seven-year-old comes home with a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and you complain that it’s not age appropriate, your “challenge” gets lumped in with the total number of ominous “bans and challenges.”
I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Goldberg is aware of the types of reconsideration policies libraries have in place and the procedures that are supposed to be followed when a book is challenged. Many book “disputes” never reach the level of a formal challenge when individuals or groups making complaints about books are asked to fill out reconsideration forms. Many complaints can be dealt with easily and amicably. To my knowledge, cases which are resolved quickly don’t get “lumped in” with “bans” or reported to ALA.
Case in point: When I served as a school librarian, a mother spoke to me after school one afternoon about a book her son had borrowed from the library. She handed me the book and told me she didn’t think it was appropriate reading for her child. I listened to her concerns. I told her that she could fill out a reconsideration form if she felt the book should be removed from the library. She told me she wasn’t asking that the book be removed from the library. She said she just didn’t want her son reading it. There was no disagreement. I didn’t bully her into making that decision. That was the end of that book “dispute.” The mother left the library satisfied with my response. I never reported this incident to ALA.
Goldberg’s example of a seven-year-old coming home with a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover is laughable. I am sure no elementary school libraries or children’s rooms in public libraries include that book in their collections.
I should add that not all challenged books are library books. Some challenged books are those which are included on school reading lists or those which teachers have read aloud in the classroom. Complaints about books such as these would usually be dealt with by school administrators or school boards.
Goldberg is correct in saying that not all challenged books are pulled from shelves. Still, there are books removed from library shelves every year. There are also books removed from school reading lists. Does Goldberg think it’s of no importance or concern because only some of the challenged books are removed or banned?
FYI—Some information on challenged and banned books:
Taken from Book battles heat up over censorship vs. selection in school by Natalie DiBlasio, (USA Today)
Books banned by various schools in the past six months include:
1. Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher
2. Big Momma Makes the World, by Phyllis Root
3. The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan
4. Burn, by Suzanne Phillips
5. Great Soul, by Joseph Lelyveld
6. It’s a Book, by Lane Smith
7. Lovingly Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
8. The Marbury Lens, by Andrew Smith
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
10. Mobile Suit Gundam: Seed Astray Vol. 3, by Tomohiro Chiba
11. My Darling, My Hamburger, by Paul Zindel
12. The Patron Saint of Butterflies, by Cecilia Galante
13. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
14. Pit Bulls and Tenacious Guard Dogs, by Carl Semencic
15. Push, by Sapphire
16. Shooting Star, by Fredrick McKissack Jr.
17. The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley, by Colin Thompson
18. Vegan Virgin Valentine, by Carolyn Mackler
19. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
20. “What’s Happening to My Body?”: Book for Boys, by Lynda Madaras with Area Madaras
Source: Jennifer Petersen, the American Library Association
Goldberg quoted the two paragraphs below from my Turley blog post and described them as “treacle”:
“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.” (Molly Raphael, President of ALA)
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.”
That’s treacle? Maybe to Goldberg—but not to me.
Goldberg also wrote: If you want to call it “censorship” to pull a book from a library that’s unsuitable for kids or that doesn’t deserve shelf-space compared to a better book, fine call it censorship. But if that’s the case, then there’s nothing unwholesome, dangerous, or sinister about censorship whatsoever. As to whether it violates the First Amendment, that strikes me as nonsense too. Librarians have somehow convinced themselves that they are the final constitutional authority about what should or should not be in libraries, often including relatively unfettered access to online porn.
So…there’s nothing unwholesome, dangerous, or sinister about removing library books that are unsuitable or don’t deserve shelf-space compared to a better book? I’d ask, “Who is supposed to determine which books are unsuitable for children and which books don’t deserve shelf space?” And what about all the quality literature and award-winning books that are often the targets of challenges?
The following three books have been frequently challenged:
Sherman Alexie’s autobiographical YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007. (Note: This book was actually banned by the Richland School District in Washington this year. It was later reinstated.)
Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, a novel about a dystopian society, won a Newbery Medal in 1994.
Katherine Paterson’s book Bridge to Terabithia received a Newbery Medal in 1978. Paterson was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2010-2011 by the Library of Congress.
From the Library of Congress:
Katherine Paterson’s international fame rests not only on her widely acclaimed novels but also on her efforts to promote literacy in the United States and abroad. A two-time winner of the Newbery Medal (“Bridge to Terabithia” and “Jacob Have I Loved”) and the National Book Award (“The Great Gilly Hopkins” and “The Master Puppeteer”), she has received many accolades for her body of work, including the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, given by her home state of Vermont. She was also named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.
Does Goldberg believe that these three award-winning books written by Alexie, Lowry, and Paterson deserve shelf space in a school library? Does he think they are inappropriate reading material for the youth of this country? Does he think more parents should challenge these books?
Goldberg was kind enough to answer a question that I had posed in my Turley blog post:
Oh, and to answer Magliaro’s question, my answer is Yes, I think it might be a good thing if there were more challenges to librarians’ judgment about what books kids should be reading. Newspapers have a much more obvious and direct connection to the First Amendment, but we don’t consider harsh letters to the editor — i.e. “challenges” to editorial policy — to be censorious. But when a parent questions the judgment of a librarian that’s supposed to be an ominous threat to free speech? That’s bunk.
I’m not sure why Goldberg thinks that newspapers have a more obvious connection to the First Amendment than books do. Do harsh letters to the editor actually censor editorial policy? No. Are book challenges the cause of some books being banned or removed from library bookshelves or school reading lists? Yes.
Goldberg seems to perceive an adversarial relationship between librarians and parents who are concerned about the books their children read. He wrote: “Any such engagement will fuel disagreements. Bullying parents by claiming that any disagreement with a librarian is censorious does no one any good.”
Are librarians bullies–as Goldberg seems to think? Do librarians “bully” parents by claiming that any disagreement with them is censorious? Goldberg gives the impression that there is constant friction between librarians and parents who express concerns to them about the books their children read. This is not true. In fact, the ALA supports parents’ rights in regard to their children’s use of library resources:
Librarians and library governing bodies cannot assume the role of parents or the functions of parental authority in the private relationship between parent and child. Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that only parents and guardians have the right and the responsibility to determine their children’s—and only their children’s—access to library resources. (ALA)
ALA President Molly Raphael said as much in the response she wrote to Goldberg’s op-ed column in USA Today:
Librarians have always supported a parent’s right to decide what his or her family should read. But in our democracy, other families should be able to make different choices for their own families, not dictated by a particular political or religious viewpoint.
The problem isn’t with parents who are concerned about what their children read and who want to help their children make good book choices. The problem comes when a parent disapproves of a book and decides he/she doesn’t want anyone else’s child to read it. Why should The Giver, Bridge to Terabithia, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian be removed from a library or a school reading list because one parent disapproves of them?
It appears Jonah Goldberg has little respect for librarians or children’s literature. He thinks there should be more book challenges. He thinks there’s nothing sinister or dangerous about certain kinds of book censorship. He claims librarians bully parents. He scoffs at the idea that the removal of books from libraries might violate the First Amendment. I think it’s a sad day when a published book author and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors believes that the American Library Association’s attempt to call attention to the challenging, censorship, and banning of books is just “b.s.”
Gordon T. Belt, the Library Manager of the First Amendment Center, wrote the following in Banned Books Week: defending our freedom to read:
“I cannot live without books.” — Thomas Jefferson.
Of all Jefferson’s inspiring and thought-provoking quotes, this one is among my favorites. As the First Amendment Center’s librarian, I have a special affinity for books, and as someone academically trained as a historian, I have an appreciation for the Founding Fathers and for the important words they left behind.
Banned Books Week — Sept. 24 through Oct. 1 — is an annual recognition by librarians and book-minded people that the First Amendment should never be taken for granted. I believe the freedoms embraced by the Founding Fathers in the 45 words of the First Amendment also speak to an implied freedom to read, yet history shows us that the struggle to maintain that freedom has never been easy.
Jefferson believed that censorship only served to draw attention to books that might otherwise be ignored or forgotten. In 1814, Jefferson wrote to his Philadelphia bookseller, Nicolas G. Dufief, concerning Jefferson’s purchase of a book by Regnault de Bécourt, La Création du Monde. American authorities claimed that de Bécourt’s book contained blasphemous material, and had accused the author of selling his book to Jefferson. In coming to de Bécourt’s defense Jefferson eloquently stated, “I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate.”
Throughout our nation’s history, words that have questioned the authority of our government and religious institutions have faced public scrutiny. Even works by our most well-known Founding Fathers have been censored out of fear of rebellion and societal decay.
Some Quotes on Censorship:
“Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.” – Voltaire
“Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance.” -Lyndon Baines Johnson
“Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there.” – Clare Booth Luce
“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.” – George Bernard Shaw
“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” – Mark Twain
Sources & Further Reading
Slaughterhouse Five Sent To Literary Gulag in Republic, MO (National Coalition Against Censorship)
Richland School Board reverses course on book ban (Tri-City Herald)
“Banned Books Week” worth the hype (Journal Star)
Banned Books Week: defending our freedom to read (First Amendment Law Center)
CRDL celebrates Banned Books Week (The Morning Sun)
Banned Books Week promotes, protects freedom (Galesburg Planet)
Column: Banned Books Week is just hype (USA Today)
Banned Books Week celebrates Freedom to Read (USA Today)
Banned Book B.S. Cont’d (National Review Online)
Censorship and Banned Books: Quotes about Censorship (New Mexico State University)
Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources (American Library Association)
Free Access to Libraries for Minors: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (American Library Association)
Notable First Amendment Court Cases (American Library Association)