The Conservative-led book ban has seen a resurgence in the past three months with new censorship debates erupting in schools, courts and homes across the country. Book banning is not a new phenomenon or an isolated practice of a single political party or ideology. This wave of censorship, however, has been particularly extensive in terms of its geographically widespread nature, the amount of books banned, and the wider implications it has for book bans in 2022.
It all started in a Tennessee school district when the school board scrapped the popular graphic novel Maus—a memoir on the Holocaust—classrooms. They defended the decision by saying that “its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its portrayal of violence and suicide” made it “too adult-oriented” for students. Schools and parent-run organizations across the country quickly followed with their own calls for specific books to be banned on a variety of grounds, whether they are too violent, too explicit, too radical, or too thematic. so that children can manage them.
For example, a popular parenting advocacy group, “No Left Turn,” recently challenged historian Howard Zinn’s national bestseller, A People’s History of the United States, and the highly acclaimed Margret Atwood A Handmaid’s Tale to be taught in schools because they see these texts as tools for “indoctrinate students” to “radical ideology”. However, claims that these books expose students to an exaggerated side of history only serve to deprive them of the ability to actually study the past in the most dispassionate way possible. A People’s History of the United States for example, teaches history from the bottom up, emphasizing the forgotten or ignored perspectives of individuals who do not fit into the often highly nationalistic framework of American history. Like any other history book, it is not meant to stand alone or promote a single narrative from the past. Rather, it is meant to be read in conjunction with other perspectives to form a complex understanding of the patterns and themes that emerge across time and space. Books similar to “A People’s History”, while they may make claims that deviate from the standard narrative of American history, are certainly not tools of indoctrination. These are necessary challenges to the dominant historical narratives and to those who manage to perpetuate them.
As many texts become accessible online, the effectiveness of modern book bans in the United States is also in question. This is especially true due to social media, where conversations about recent book bans may have heightened public awareness of controversial titles. Technology has led to an increase in the popularity and sales of banned titles. The increased awareness of the current bans has further been exploited by companies, especially bookstores, who have moved to commodify the genre of banned books. Book displays showcasing controversial titles popped up all over stores (if they weren’t already there), raising awareness of currently contested titles. Although racks of “banned books” raise awareness of the existence of important titles, it is debatable whether it is fair that there are people profiting from this wave of censorship.
Of course, there are still limits to reading forbidden books for most people. For many, using physical copies of books is the preferred and sometimes the only accessible method of obtaining particular titles, depending on whether or not a student has access to a computer and the Internet at home. Removing some books from free spaces like libraries and school shelves means those who don’t have permission to read or can’t afford a certain title won’t be able to read valuable books because of the bans public.
Literature, both controversial and neutral, offers individuals the opportunity to teach themselves something as much as it acts as a tool for teachers (in the broadest interpretation of the role) to educate others. It is central to the learning process because it challenges the institutionalization of ideas. Literature is fluid – it grants readers some autonomy in their own upbringing to develop beliefs and make observations for themselves. Controversial books in particular, which are often banned for their particularly thought-provoking content, challenge the dominant narratives of history and society. By their very nature, books facilitate a process of inquiry between readers and the world, something that education should embody. So, by removing titles from schools, politicians and organizations pushing for such bans are only failing to meet their responsibilities to the people they represent. By censoring books that deal with heavier themes or content deemed too explicit, parents and politicians are denying their responsibility to provide children and citizens with the resources they need to truly educate themselves.
Although it can be said that some parents and guardians who advocate for the removal of controversial texts are genuinely acting on what they believe to be right, this type of response speaks volumes about the process of devaluation of literature in today’s society. . People have become disconnected from the absolute power words have to make someone feel seen and to communicate truths about history and the world. Today, many fear rather than cherish books and the curiosity they inspire.
Literature is an outlet for history. It is an essential means of historicizing and characterizing the past in a recognizable way. It is an outlet for the truth. It’s a way to explore the world beyond what you may face in your day-to-day life. It’s a way to challenge your own beliefs and perspectives and learn to cultivate empathy for others. Reading keeps people from getting stuck in the echo chambers of mainstream beliefs channeled into the media, schools, etc. In his essay responding to recent book bans, author Viet Thanh Nguyen writes “Books are inseparable from ideas, and that is what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, know and question. Books allow us to experience the necessary discomfort that is essential for growth; Oscar Wilde once said, “The books the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” More importantly, books tell us about ourselves, and they tell us about those around us. They can make us feel understood and accepted when we feel most alone. The 2022 book bans have shown us that we must collectively redefine the importance of all kinds of literature in our lives. No one should be deprived of the opportunity to read something that may make them feel seen.