Libraries advocate for the freedom to access and read any book a reader might want. To bring attention to the insidious problem of censorship and encroachment on the First Amendment, libraries all over the country celebrate Banned Books Week. Launched by the American Library Association in 1982, the ALA tabulates reports of challenges to books held in library collections, as well as any times those challenges resulted in restricting access to a book or even, in some cases, of completely withdrawing it from a collection. The resulting list of the top ten most-challenged books is updated and publicized every year.
Challenges against books typically occur in school or public libraries, and often target children’s books. Common titles that have suffered recent challenges include Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, and This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson.
Reading options for adults can also be subject to censorship attempts. Challenges to these books are almost always demands for them to be withdrawn from library collections entirely, rather than attempts to move them from children’s to general shelves. Examples of recently challenged books include Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and Nickle and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.
Books are challenged for various reasons. These include allegations that the book in question includes too much violence; too much explicitly described sex; sexuality, profanity, or is blasphemous or libelous. While librarians are sensitive to the needs of their communities, a vigorous defense of the First Amendment requires the acknowledgement that authors be able to freely take any positions they want on any of these issues, and that readers should be able to choose which of them they read without fear of the censorship of others.
Even beyond challenging a book’s right to be publicly available on an American library’s shelves, another form of censorship seeks to permanently silence an author. The reality of this type of repression was demonstrated in New York, in August 2022, when Salman Rushdie – author of The Satanic Verses – was stabbed ten times, including in the neck, by a militant responding to decades-old calls for his death on the grounds that his book was blasphemy.
The 1989 fatwa against the life of Rushdie was issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, offering a $3 million reward for his murder. In the intervening years, dozens of people have been killed to suppress the book, including those who have translated it into other languages. For years in the 1980s and 90s, Rushdie lived in hiding. This assault is a reminder that such dangers to liberty and free expression never go away, and eternal vigilance is required to preserve the freedom of information.
However, despite the best efforts of the assailant, Rushdie’s words are unlikely ever to be suppressed. The Satanic Verses is held in more than 4,500 libraries because free people refuse to accommodate censors. The totalitarian urge to control what other people choose to think and read can have dire consequences, but only if we allow it.
IU East offers access to books about challenging the freedom of information, including Defending Frequently Challenged Young Adult Books: A Handbook for Librarians and Educators and Teaching Banned Books: 12 Guides for Young Readers, both by Pat Scales, Silenced in the Library: Banned Books in America by Zeke Jarvis, and Beyond Banned Books: Defending Intellectual Freedom Throughout Your Library by Kristin Pekoll.
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