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.
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.
TAKE A RISK — READ A BOOK!