Rant of the Wild Librarian: Just Plain Filthy

This is the Thirtieth Anniversary of Banned Books Week and I’m not sure whether to be pleased that people have been officially fighting censorship for at least this long or completely frustrated that we still have to remind people that, as the Supreme Court told the School Board of Island Trees, New York, in 1982, it isn’t particularly legal to keep the public from accessing books like Slaughterhouse Five “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

Not even if they’re “‘anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.”

The American Library Association, as you might suspect, is all over Banned Books Week, and has provided a terrific timeline of Banned Books, highlighting one challenged title for each of the thirty years.

Even after all these years in a public library setting, I wasn’t expecting The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, though the reasons are about as facepalm-inducing as one might imagine.

But it’s difficult to predict every little thing that might enrage other people’s sensibilities—though there are certain subjects that are practically guaranteed to do so.

About twenty years ago, when I was working for the summer at my hometown public library, a patron came up to the desk with a biography, meant for adult readers, of a movie actor who shall remain nameless because I honestly can’t remember who it was.  The patron said he wanted me to “be aware” of something in the book and opened it, not to a torn page or the impression of a bacon bookmark or even commentary rendered in magic marker,* but to three very specific publisher ads in the back.

Two of these ads were for annotated filmographies of gay cinema and one was for a book about a male character struggling with his sexual orientation in Hollywood.   The wording and images in these ads were not, as I recall, explicit.

He also told me that he was sure the person who had ordered the book for the library had no idea that sort of thing was in this otherwise fine biography of a fine actor, but he wanted me to be aware that it was “just in case someone else saw them.”

I gave him a complaint form, which was standard procedure, and took the book away, even though he said he would put it back.  This was also standard procedure— we had been told how creative people could get when it came to sparing other people from items they didn’t like.**  Or didn’t want other people to like.

What I did not say to him—because I didn’t know how to express it and had no authority to do so—was that no one was forcing him or anyone else to buy the books in those ads or to approve of them.  The library could not control what publishers advertised in their own publications and was not going to remove pages from a book out of fear that someone might know that certain books exist or are available for purchase.

It is not the place of a public library to support or disapprove of any particular concept.***  It is the place of a library to make a variety of fiction and non-fiction materials available to the public, who are then free to choose what they wish to read, view, and believe.

One’s responsibility to protect others from ideas and concepts ends at the boundaries of one’s own immediate family.

But I didn’t have to say any of this, because the library board said it all when the patron attended the next open meeting and asked what the library was planning to do about the “filthy things” in the book.

“So you want people to know that the library supports this kind of perverted lifestyle?” asked the patron.

“We want the public to know that we do not support censorship,” said the Board president.

It’s as simple as that.


*Librarians have all seen worse, believe me.  If you’re reading to take your mind off a heavy cold, please use a tissue and turn your head when you sneeze, okay?  Snot is intended to be nature’s superglue.

**And from typos, too.  If you ever feel compelled to physically correct the grammar and punctuation in a library book, please don’t.  I do sympathize, but it’s still considered vandalism—and to be honest, you aren’t always right.

*** Except possibly for the arguments against tax levies for public libraries, because c’mon people, seriously?



Puppets Against Banning Books, Eventually (PABBE)

I posted this first video during last year’s Banned Books Week, but I’m gonna do it again.

It offers a good explanation of why banning books isn’t a good idea and has a hungry sock puppet.  What’s not to like?


And for something a little more contemporary, I give you a video that highlights the most recently challenged books. No puppets, but the soundtrack is kickin’.

Banned Books Week is here — Let’s Tango

Banned Books Week starts tomorrow.

Shall we all celebrate by reading a banned or challenged book this week and posting or tweeting or facebooking (or whatever the verb is) a short review?  Extra points for reading a banned book that you personally loathe—that’ll confuse the censors.

If you need any ideas, the ALA has some lists you can consult—or, in a pinch, anything mentioning sex,* religion,** politics,*** non-religious magic,^ written in archaic language,^^ or within the reach of children will probably do.

And mustn’t forget the penguins:  It looks like the book with the most challenges in 2010 was the one I reviewed for The Rejectionist’s call to arms last year: And Tango Makes Three.

I’m still shaking my head over this one.  Apparently love, acceptance, and dedicated parenting aren’t family values.

Who knew?

So buckle up, buttercup, and let’s put our common sense to the test.

Who’s with me?


* Phil Kirby: “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”

** Every time you restrict someone’s right to believe (or not) in the deity of their choosing, God reaches for the whiskey and matches Cthulhu shot for shot.  What?

*** Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”

^ News Flash:  Harry Potter isn’t satanic—he fights the evil guy who tore apart his own soul on purpose and enjoys killing people.  Perhaps you should read books first before you condemn them—though if you don’t, I’ll still defend to the death your right to spout ignorance.  Won’t stop calling you on it, though.

^^ True story:  I once overheard two University people talking about all the questionable things kids were assigned to read these days, with all the bad language and sex and death.  “They should teach the classics, instead—like Shakespeare and Chaucer!” Seriously.    I almost turned around to tell them everything I learned from Shakespeare and The Canterbury Tales, which included a large helping of questionable language, sex (also questionable), and death (ditto), but on second thought kept my mouth shut.  Why on earth would I want to stop them?

Ban Ignorance!

I’ve been reading through various lists of books that have been challenged or banned over the years, and I have to admit that I’m confused about some of the reasons behind the challenges.

Especially when a book is accused of promoting something.  A lot of them are.

I do realize that there’s no arguing with the kind of person who challenges My Friend Flicka because it uses the word dam, spelling and definition be you-know-what.*

But  to quote one of my favorite fictional characters:** “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Promote means “to help or encourage to exist or flourish.”   None of the following examples help or encourage the things for which they are vilified.  At all.  The exact opposite, in fact.

You can’t tell me that Go Ask Alice “promotes” drug use and promiscuity.  The descriptions and outcomes of the main character’s behavior are not pleasant.  Even Alice thinks she’s made the wrong decisions all down the line and she isn’t rewarded for them.  Spoiler alert:  she dies of an overdose.

Will someone please explain how George Orwell’s 1984 “promotes” communism?***  Was there a fun version of this book that I missed?  A happy ending that was somehow bowdlerized without editorial note ?^   If the constant critical surveillance, doublethinkspeak, and utter lack of decent chocolate aren’t enough, weren’t the rats something of a clue?

Does anyone really think that William Golding was “promoting” violence and mob rule among children?  You think maybe he was envisioning a Lord of the Flies summer camp franchise, complete with piggy roasts?  Read the whole book, please, and then point out specific examples of how this story makes anarchy look like a happy alternative to parental authority.

And let’s not forget any of Chris Crutcher’s books—please.  I’ve met Mr. Crutcher, I’ve heard him speak,^^ and I’ve read almost everything he’s written, even when it was painful to do so.  You cannot convince me that this man is in favor of child abuse, bullying, or any kind of violence, whether physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual.  Don’t even try.

I believe that, in view of the actual content of this (admittedly small) sample of books, the phrase these challengers should be using in place of promotes is informs reader of.

Except challenging a book because it informs the reader doesn’t, ah, promote the same sense of outrage, does it?

Protecting the children is a much better catchphrase than leaving children in ignorance.

Plus, leaving children in ignorance about the tough stuff doesn’t often work the way one might hope; “Do it because I say so” has a very limited shelf life.   Even before they learn how to read, kids need to know why or they’ll go find out for themselves—it’s hardwired.   By the time they can read, they need to start learning why and how and who, so that they can learn to protect themselves and each other before it’s too late.

And too many children already know all about the toughest stuff possible—they’ve experienced it.  These kids desperately need to know that they aren’t alone and that they can make it.  These are the kids in need of protection—and keeping them ignorant is about the worst thing that can be done.

The only way to protect our kids is to promote information.

Books do that.


*As told to me by one of my children’s lit professors who had each of us write a defense of a challenged children’s or YA book—I did Norma Fox Mazer’s Up in Seth’s Room.

**A recovering alcoholic who uses bad language right before he kills a member of the aristocracy.

***So called after Thomas Bowdler, who published edited versions of the works of Shakespeare and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire so that women and children could read them without disturbing their content little lives with the racier passages.

^Just to be clear, I’m not agreeing—or disagreeing— that communism is evil.  I’m arguing against the premise that this particular book is in favor of it.

^^If you ever have a chance to hear him speak, do it.  He’ll make you laugh, break your heart, make you think, and inspire you.   Bet you a dollar.

Ban Censorship!

I wrote this in the early nineties as a college essay.  I think it still works.  The footnotes were added by present day me.


You’re reading a book and you don’t like it.

In fact, it disturbed you—the language was stronger than you like, or the characters don’t think like you, or they deal with things you prefer to pretend don’t exist.  Or someone told you it was a metaphor for all the things you were warned about in Sunday School, up to and including Satan worship in all its innocent-looking insidiousness.

So you stop reading and you toss it into the library return box.*

But then you get to thinking.**  That’s a public library, which means other people might see that book on the shelf.  And, not knowing what you know, they might read it. Not everyone has your skills in ferreting out filth—some of them might not have your moral compass or fortitude.  And maybe some of them aren’t even adults.

Young people might pick it up–children might be tempted by the cover alone.

You must protect the children.

So you write a letter about this immediate threat to just about everyone you know who thinks the way you do or cares about the safety of the innocent. And you might exaggerate a little about the content to strengthen your case, sure, but this is war.

And you get a lot of names and petition the library to ban the book from the library.  For the sake of other people’s children.

And the challenged book committee  looks at the book, reads it from cover to cover*** .  .  . and tells you that they’re keeping it.  It’s the responsibility of parents to monitor their own children’s reading habits, if they so choose.

This is unacceptable.

Because if this book stays, then you might have been wrong about it, and you can’t be wrong about something like this, because that would be embarrassing means that some of your core beliefs might be mere subjective opinion, and that can’t be right.  Right?

And instead of taking a long look at those core beliefs or hating the sin but not the sinner or writing an informative review of the book for your newspaper, or even reading the book again to strengthen your argument for the next round. . . you get mad.

You will protect these idiots from themselves.

So you check the book out again—all the copies—and you blacken or rip out all the offensive stuff before you return them.  Or maybe you don’t return them at all.  Maybe you hold yourself a little bonfire, complete with homemade signs and the local news.

Except . . . people want to know what the fuss is all about.  And for some reason they aren’t taking your word for it.  They’re buying the book—they’re reading that ridiculous, satanistic metaphor! In droves!

And then the library calls.

They want to talk to you about the criminal charges you’ll be facing if you don’t pay for replacements of the books you sanitized—plus processing fees.

So you storm over to the library to protest this gross injustice at great length and at top volume.

And in return for all you’ve done for the community, you’re banned from the library.

To protect the rights of other people’s children.


*Possibly with your kitchen tongs, which you will then boil in alcohol.   ‘

**Which, frankly, isn’t your strong suit.

***Why did they need to do that?  You didn’t need to do that.