Banned Books Week 2021, 2nd day

I realize yesterday was Sunday, and perhaps your local library wasn’t open, so you couldn’t get your library card. But today’s Monday! You can still get one.

Or perhaps you have one already? Excellent. We can continue.

Today, I take you to the American Library Association’s website, which is loaded with information about Banned Books Week. The ALA, established in 1876, has the stated goal of enabling “librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.” Hmmm. I wonder what a 19th century librarian’s expenses were?

Among other things, the ALA funds grants and scholarships, holds conferences, and advocates for local, state-wide, and national support of libraries. Also, it helps promote Banned Books Week through its Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).

If you’re into lists, click on the website’s link for the “Top 10 Challenged Books”, where you’ll find the list of the top-ten banned books for the last 20 years.

Infographic courtesy ALA

I’ve read five of the books on the 2020 top-ten list, so for today’s post I’ve chosen one of them: #5, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), a funny, sad, truly wonderful book about life for a Native American teenager who decides to attend high school off-reservation. Junior, the protagonist, tells his story as he deals with what every teenager faces: acceptance, self-understanding, sex, family, friendship. If you haven’t read it, you should.

Tracking the evolution of the challenges and bans the novel has faced since its publication is like tracking anger-points in 21st century US history. It first appeared on the ALA top-ten list in 2010, because of “offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence”. In 2011, “religious viewpoint” replaced “sex education”, but then disappeared in the 2012 reasons for the book’s challenges (“offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group”). Most of the same reasons appeared in 2013, but in 2014 the reasons ballooned: “anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: ‘depictions of bullying'”. “Cultural insensitivity”? Whose culture was offended? Alexie, a Native American, based much of the novel on his own experiences growing up in Spokane. Also, why is it bad to depict bullying?

In 2015 and 2016, the book didn’t make the top ten, but in 2017, something interesting happened. Whoever wrote the “reasons” for each book’s appearance on the list that year must have been in a mood. Here’s what they wrote for Alexie’s book: “Consistently challenged since its publication in 2007 for acknowledging issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality, this National Book Award winner was challenged in school curriculums because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.” Read the 2017 list carefully — each banned book had won a prize or been a best-seller or was in some other way note-worthy. It’s as if that year’s list editor had had enough of this stupid idea that readers need to be protected from unpleasant topics.

In 2018, the list goes back to status quo ante, Alexie doesn’t make the list in 2019, and then in 2020: “Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author” [my emphasis].

Yep. It’s official. Cancel culture is now a “reason” for book challenges on the ALA list. I have no comment on the allegations against Alexie. I just want to point out that banning a book because of its author’s reprehensible behavior would erase a great number of classics: Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Oscar Wilde (I’m trying to think of a woman writer to add to this list, but no luck — wait, Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Here’s an interesting op-ed about this very issue from the Chicago Tribune (Sandra Beasley, 14 May 2018).

Apologies. I went on much longer than I expected. Fortunately, that’s it for today. Join me tomorrow for another website and another banned book. With luck, it will also be a shorter post.


About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Am revising, Banned/Challenged Books and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Banned Books Week 2021, 2nd day

  1. J says:

    Simon Schama’s POWER OF ART looks into all sorts of problematic behaviors of great artists. Kind of a chicken or egg conundrum, which came first, the troubled artist or the art? How is separating the two any benefit at all or is the stand alone art the only thing of value?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      I agree that it’s difficult to separate the art from the artist, but these unquestionably are separate entities with a metaphysical connection. Bad people can still make great art (likewise, good people can make bad art). But as one of the bloggers I referenced said, conversations about artistic works can’t ignore the artists’ bad behavior — otherwise our admiration for the artwork might be construed as admiration for the artist. As to your second question, even a bad person is of value. All life is of value. But I don’t have to accept a person’s beliefs just because they created a painting/song/book I love.


  2. Calmgrove says:

    Such a fraught area, isn’t it, striking a balance between free speech and upsetting / perverting / offending a particular section of society, whether on the basis of religion, age, gender, race, political affiliation, addiction, sexual orientation or an author’s personal life.

    The US particularly goes in for these banned lists, doesn’t it, I’m not aware that it’s a thing in the UK or much of Europe (unless it’s a repressive regime). Perhaps there’s more unofficial sanctioning going on here, as when musicians for example are convicted of sexual predation and their hits are no longer broadcast in the media.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Yes, Chris, we Americans have a long history of public shaming and shunning. Those Puritans have a lot to answer for.

      And thanks for reminding me about musicians. Across the nation, piles of records go up in flames (starting with the Beatles, I believe, after John’s comment about God). The irony of pyro-protests is that the artist gets the money whether the protesters listen to the music or not, and radio stations continue to play the music.

      To this day, we still struggle with how much of free speech should be protected. I’m waiting for someone to point out that disinformation about COVID &/or Vaccines is equivalent to shouting “Fire!” in a movie theater — if such speech endangers others, it should be illegal.

      As for Europe and the rest of the world, two titles still top the list of incendiary books: ‘Mein Kampf’, and ‘The Satanic Verses’. (Oh, and I just remembered ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ — I think that might be #3 on the international list.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You can add JK Rowling in the female category. She is a perfect example of today’s cancel culture as a person whose personal views-that have nothing to do with their written work-are enough to ban them. It’s not that writers may have controversial personal views, it’s that they can’t even be discussed and their otherwise beloved works become scorned. They are just outright canceled.

    And what is so interesting to me about books like Sherman Alexie’s, he is criticized by other Native people for not showing a “good” portrait of a young Native man growing up. You can’t show “warts and all,* you can’t deviate from the script of prescribed sensibility or you’re piled on. We live in a fragility culture now that seriously, I don’t know how anyone can even write anymore.

    I would love to see the ALA tackle this as a freedom to read issue. But I’m sure they fear being canceled themselves!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks, Laurie, for reminding me of JKR. Completely forgot that whole thing. I’m not too worried about her, though. If no one ever buys another HP book, she’ll be fine.

      Like you, I’d love to see ALA’s position on cancel culture, but that trend is substantially different from censorship. I haven’t heard anyone yet demand that HP be pulled from school libraries.

      As for fragility, that’s always going to be an issue, no matter the genre. But at least writers are now aware of problems of representation in literature and can try to address these.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When Bill Cosby became known as a predator, his Little Bill books got on the Top Ten list for the first and only time, as people wanted those books pulled. As they pointed out at the Horn Book, though, it’s not like we’ve got a surfeit of easy readers about Black children/family life….

    Liked by 1 person

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