The Paradox of Banned Books Week


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

When the leaves on the trees turn red and gold, the pumpkins glow orange in the fields, the apples drop crisply from their heavy branches, the frost crackles on the fallen leaves, and the night air, laden with smoke, proceeds like fog from our mouths, we all know it’s time for that annual book marketing extravaganza called “Banned Books Week.” Libraries and bookstores can plaster posters and book lists over their doors and windows, bemoaning censorship and crying foul to the many challenges to the use of certain books in classrooms or the presence of certain books on library shelves. Patrons and customers can grab lists of these banned books at the front desk of the library or the checkout counter of the store, and cluck over what a shame it is that people can be so closed minded to ban Catcher in the Rye or Slaughterhouse-Five or Lolita from the school library. Banned Books Week masquerades as a celebration of the freedom to read any book, any time we want while at the same time vilifying any organization or institution that would take that freedom away. The marketing gurus who dreamed up this week know how to play on the American people’s strong sense of individualism, their desire to be free from authoritative structures that dictate what kinds of materials may and may not be read, and the insatiable lust to engage in an activity in which these same people could salaciously tasting the forbidden flavors of fruits locked up in a paradisiacal garden. So, for one week out of the year, some readers indignantly look down on those who “ban” books and proudly declare that they themselves would never, ever rob someone of the pleasure and enlightenment of reading a book just because it contains the word “nigger” or watches a young girl masturbate or in which a young boy commits suicide or utters foul language.

Of course, each of us bans books every time we go to the library or to the bookstore, and most librarians—all of whom genuinely celebrate the power of reading to change lives—act as censors when they order one book rather than another to fill their collection. Others of us engage in the act of censoring books when we refuse to read genre literature because of its lack of literary quality or when bookstores and libraries place mysteries, science fiction, and thrillers in a section separate from the “fiction and literature.” Most stores now segregate African American fiction from the rest of the fiction and literature, and many bookstores have sections devoted to gay and lesbian literature and separate it from other “literature.” Even “Christian literature” has its own section and is not integrated into fiction sections (although Publishers Weekly has long led the way in folding reviews of this “genre” of fiction into its general fiction reviews). Such separation publicly declares that the store and its employees have decided that these kinds of books don’t belong, and they have banned them to a separate section. How can the organizers of Banned Book Week be indignant about others exercising their freedom from the strictures of a society with whose principles their own principles come into conflict when those same organizers exercise their freedom to condemn and censor books with which they disagree? Banned Books Week provides a good reminder that we live within the tension of two kinds of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Whenever we climb on the bandwagon of the strutters and trumpeters, we believe that we celebrate the freedom to read whatever books we want, no matter the content, the language, the plot, or the themes. Of course, when we take those steps into that band, we can never be free from the conformity required to be a member of that group. What feels like liberty is really imprisonment, and the lists of banned books and the posters close in like steel bars, trapping us in the cells of illusion that we are really free to choose our own reading.

When I worked as a reference librarian in a mid-sized public library, we always observed Banned Book Week; we put up the requisite posters and provided the requisite lists of books that various organizations had challenged or banned. Ironically enough, I was doing my own banning every week when I turned in my book order. Why didn’t I order the latest book by James Dobson but order the most recent book by Billy Graham? Why did I order one anthology of stories of poems rather than another? I based my buying, as do many public librarians, on book reviews. But how many positive reviews should a book have before I ordered it? And could I trust the criteria by which a reviewer judged a book or set of books? Isn’t a book review—and I write plenty of them myself—simply a means of banning a book? If a reviewer thinks a book doesn’t compare favorably with others of the same genre or discipline, should he or she be the final arbiter in the decision to carry the book? Look at what happens on these days. If enough reviewers pounce on the book and provide negative reviews, they have effectively banned the book—from store shelves and from readers’ hands. We are a censorious group, we humans, and it’s not just the groups that Banned Book Weeks persecutes as book banners that engage in such heinous activity. While we’re celebrating the freedom to read during this week, let’s also remember the dark side of our nature of which this week reminds us: we all are book banners at heart.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.



Contact Us || Site Map || || Article Search || © 2006 - 2012 BiblioBuffet