Who controls the books you can read?
Someone gave Margaret Atwood a flamethrower.
The grey-haired author has become the patron saint of a certain type of dystopian apocalypticism. No protest is complete these days without at least a few women in red dresses and white beanies from The Handmaid’s Tale, his darkened portrayal of an authoritarian society built around control of consciousness and fertility. “The Handmaid’s Tale has been banned many times – sometimes by whole countries, like Portugal and Spain in the days of Salazar and the Francoists,” Atwood notes, “sometimes by school boards, sometimes by libraries.”
All of this made her the perfect subject for a stunt to raise money for PEN America, a non-profit organization that fights against literary censorship: she took a blowtorch to a bespoke fireproof edition of her work the more famous, which will later be put up for auction. by Sotheby’s.
Book burnings have long been popular with those who would seize and hold power, from the Catholic Church to Josef Stalin. Kings, fascists and communists warmed their hands at literary bonfires. But rarely in America in 2022 do book bans take the incendiary form of our Ray Bradbury-fueled fever dreams.
Yet the book bans controversy has erupted nonetheless, with local and state elections won or lost over which books will be stored in libraries or taught in schools — a newly reinvigorated front in a long-running culture war.
The American Library Association (ALA), another anti-censorship organization, maintains lists of what it calls “disputed books” – books that a person or group has tried to take down or restrict access to. in schools or libraries. A “banned book” is one where this deletion is successful.
According to ALA calculations, challenges and bans are on the rise, setting a 20-year record. The organization recorded 729 challenges to documents from libraries, schools and universities in 2021, targeting more than 1,500 different titles. The list is far from exhaustive, assembled as it is from media reports and people who contact the organization directly. This produces a strange chicken-and-egg problem, where the more politically agitated people are about book bans, the more incidents they will report as book bans, and the more there will be.
The books on ALA’s annual Top 10 list vary from year to year, but they’re a cohesive mix: classics that deal with mature themes…Beloved and the Bible—books that contain slurs or other now-controversial words or depictions of race—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Kill a mockingbird—books that address sex or gender from an age-appropriate perspective—I Am Jazz and anything by Raina Telgemeier – books that smack of the occult – the Harry Potter series and Bridge to Terabithia—and books very clearly written by and for adults—Fifty shades of Grey.
The ALA list suggests book banners are leaning to the right – with a growing emphasis on books with queer themes or characters, for example – though book challenges come from across the spectrum of political views and preferences. aesthetic. One can wonder if the list’s bias is an artifact of collectors’ concerns or simply a reflection of an underlying reality.
“Banned books” is a vague category, like “cancel culture” or “obscenity”. At the terrifying apex of the hierarchy are the real, state-enforced book bans — the kind that inspire the government-sponsored conflagrations described above, especially those designed to suppress political dissent or erase inconvenient stories.
The removal of books from public libraries or public school libraries is a step below these, although it is also a kind of government censorship, since the books are removed by public employees, often at demand from politicians. The same goes for battles over curriculum: they are far from a state-ordered book burning, but they are too often driven by the same censorship impulse and the same small-mindedness. . They are less troubling than outright bans because they tend to be localized, applied primarily to children, and made public in ways that allow parents to guard against them. But that doesn’t mean they’re flawless.
There are always new fronts in the book war. The end of May saw a bizarre extension of the book ban in school libraries to the private sector, one clearly unconstitutional, politically motivated and ultimately unnecessary. Two Virginia Republicans (a congressional candidate and a member of the House of Delegates) have asked a court to issue a restraining order on the sale of two books, requiring buyers to be registered: Gender Queera graphic novel about non-binary identity and, somewhat inexplicably, the second book in a series that can best be described as fairy porn, A court of mist and fury. The books have very little in common other than the fact that both are about sex. But as anyone who’s ever stood spellbound in the romantic aisle of a Barnes & Noble will know, these aren’t the only two books to do so. Nor is Barnes & Noble the only place one could acquire such books, although the Virginia Beach City Public School Board has already voted to remove Gender Queer also school libraries.
Almost all of the books mentioned in this issue are, in fact, accessible to motivated American readers. “Let’s hope we don’t get to the stage of book burning, as in Fahrenheit 451“, said Atwood, his blowtorch still smoking. “But if we do, let’s hope that some books will prove to be non-flammable – that they will travel underground, like the banned books did in the Soviet Union.”
But there are more ways for governments to control what people can read than immediately identifiable book bans. Adults can still struggle to access books for all sorts of government-related reasons, from intellectual property struggles to local zoning to incarceration.
There are also private entities that practice a form of book banning. If this form is the least disturbing from a legal point of view – companies and individuals should have the right to do business with whoever they want – it is nonetheless disturbing from a cultural point of view, and it seems to be increasing. This includes self-censorship by authors and publishers as well as access control by booksellers.
All of these less glaring obstacles are explored in the pages that follow, along with their more traditional counterparts. It should be noted that the only book we were unable to obtain in our research for this issue is a memoir that remains unpublished due to a gag order from the Securities and Exchange Commission, one last reminder not to get too distracted by the blowtorch while other books are quietly extinguished.
We hope that this issue of Raison will serve as both a cautionary tale and a fun summer reading list, because in many cases a “banned” book is also a popular book. A single puff of the censor’s smoke can send hordes of onlookers searching for new releases to acquire copies. Not all will stand the literary test of time, but the Holy Bible and fairy porn each have their place. Maybe this place is by the pool?
Romeo and Juliet
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
And say I saw it on Mulberry Street
Howl and other poems
Kill a mockingbird
The Master and Margarita
Harry Potter at the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen of the Future
Katherine Mangu Ward
I Am Jazz
Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
blood in the water
Heather Ann Thompson
When Harry became Sally
Elizabeth Nolan Brown
This article originally appeared under the title “Who controls the books you can read? ».