Columns > Published on September 17th, 2018

8 Reasons We Should Listen To Book Banners

It’s September, which means it’s Banned Books Month. Lots of us, especially in the book selling/lending worlds, get pretty excited about this. We wear our Read Banned Books t-shirts and fasten I Read Banned Books pins to our cool jackets (or cardigans). We create massive displays and really stick it to the man.

I’ve done it too. I’ve been there. Big display and “Fuck you, book banners!” attitude.

Time has passed, and as with most things (my bones, my stools) I’ve softened a bit. I’ve softened on banned books. Well, maybe not on the books being banned, but on the book banners. Time and experience have taught me that when someone comes into the library or bookstore wanting a book banned, bold slogans printed across a punk t-shirt might not be the best way to deal with them. In fact, there are some good reasons to listen to book banners.

Please douse your torches and holster your pitchforks (holster? Is that a method of putting away a pitchfork?). I’m not in favor of banning books. I’m in favor of talking about why listening to book banners is worth your time.

Different Flavors of Bans

Sometime this month you’ll hear an alarming stat about how many books were banned this year. But let’s take a moment to talk about what that means, exactly, because you’re probably picturing a pile of books, some gasoline, and a smiling, evil religious figure with a match. We think about a book ban being like the dancing ban in Footloose. Nobody could hold a dance, nobody could dance anywhere in the community. If you wanted to dance, you had to find an abandoned barn and be prepared to face the consequences (which mostly consisted of being the butt of jokes in columns like this, as I find choreographed 80’s dance a silly medium for the expression of genuine emotion).

So when you hear a stat about “banned books,” you likely picture flames and sermonizing and a group of zombified followers cheering the destruction.

This image is...not entirely accurate.

The book ban stats you’re most likely to hear come from the American Library Association. Often, these stats are called “bans” by media outlets, but the ALA counts “challenges.” What’s the difference?

A challenge can include something like a library user wanting a book moved from a children’s collection to an adult collection. It can include a request that a school remove a book from the curriculum or from a particular grade’s required reading. A challenge also does not need to be successful to be counted.

It doesn’t mean that challenges have no impact. A challenged book is less likely to make the curriculum in the future. A challenge might make a bookstore hesitant to stock something. But, if we go back to the Footloose situation, we should all keep in mind that if Footloose were the story of a challenge to the act of dancing, it might be venue-specific, might be age-specific, and might not be successful. It would be a pretty boring movie, however, we could still play chicken on tractors and have that sweet soundtrack.

I just want everyone to understand the context of this discussion. The book banners we’re listening to might not want a book removed from the world. They might not want a book burned out of existence. They might have requests that are a little more reasonable.

Banners Are Often Engaged With The World Of Books

When you look through the ALA’s highlighted challenges from various years, there are some ridiculous stories. Challenging Lauren Myracle’s TTYL because it encourages teenagers to rebel against their parents? Please. Like teens wouldn’t come up with that idea on their own. Footloose was in ‘84, WAY before TTYL, and those teens rebelled know what? Enough with the Footloose.

Other challenges, however, show a deeper involvement with the world of books. 

When someone challenged Ian McEwan’s Atonement at Toronto Public Library, it wasn’t on the basis of crude material or sexiness or anything remotely exciting. It was because the book contained “poor grammar and sentence structure.” A Dave Eggers book was also challenged for the same reasons, also at Toronto Public Library. Possibly by the same person? Either way, take that, literary darling Dave Eggers!

I don’t want to get into the debate about whether “poor grammar and sentence structure” are legitimate reasons to ban a book. I don’t want to get into that debate because they totally aren’t: End debate.

What interests me about this challenge is that it would seem there’s an individual at Toronto Public Library who is engaging with a number of books and the library. This is probably someone doing a good bit of reading, and someone who is reading critically.

I like that, personally. I like when people actually give a shit. I think the shits they’re giving are sometimes directed poorly, and I think maybe this person would find a better outlet in a book club or in writing extremely angry Amazon reviews, but I think it’s easier to redirect that energy than it is to get someone who doesn’t care about books to start caring.

Lots of people don’t care about books. Banners don’t care the way I want them to, but at least they have SOME passion regarding books. They genuinely believe in a book’s ability to shape a life. They’ve had at least ONE passionate conversation, as an adult, regarding a book.

It’s a low bar, but it’s reality. And I'd rather listen to someone who has a hot take on Dave Eggers than someone who hasn't read a book since high school. 

Their Concerns Can Prompt Us To Reevaluate Canon

What started as an attempt at narrowing options ends in a widening. Feels like a win to me, and a win we might not have seen had the challengers kept quiet.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an oft-challenged book, as are lots of titles commonly assigned in schools. Huckleberry’s troubles often originate with one word. Well, one word that’s used hundreds of times.

It’s a book that I don’t think should be banned or censored, but it’s one that prompts a good question: Is there something specific you want to get out of this book, and can that need be fulfilled by a book that has, I don’t know, something less than a couple hundred N-bombs?

It’s a question I’ve phrased badly here, but it’s a valid question. Are some canonical works replaceable by other works that are more relevant and cover the same ground? Are there alternatives that still speak to the spirit of a work without carrying with them the specific issues?

Hey, sometimes the answer is No. I accept that. Huckleberry Finn probably isn’t replaceable in a college course regarding classic American novels of the 19th century. Some books just don’t have an equivalent. Some books are used specifically because they challenge readers in specific ways.

However, it’s crucial that we ask the question, even if the answer is No. It’s a good exercise to seek alternatives. Seeking alternatives can result in finding alternatives, or we might end up crystallizing what was unique about the work we were trying to replace, both of which are good things.

Book banners don’t necessarily phrase their complaints that way, with a look to alternatives, but sometimes it takes an extreme viewpoint (“All copies of this book should be destroyed!”) to get us asking the right questions (“Does this book need to be read by every American 10th grader?”).

The Response Can Mean A Widening Of Options For Readers

In a Michigan high school, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was challenged because it depicts a sexual assault. The compromise reached in that case was that students could pick one of three books (one of those options being The Bluest Eye) that covered the themes of oppression and poverty.

This is a fairly common compromise type that comes out of these types of challenges.

Again (for the hundredth time) I don’t necessarily agree with the challenge, but I like the result. Not so much the steering away from Toni Morrison, but I like that students, especially students in later high school, are given a modicum of agency in their education. I like that they’re learning to look at options and select something for themselves. Y’know, maybe think for themselves just a little bit. I like that The Bluest Eye remains one of the options.

What started as an attempt at narrowing options ends in a widening. Feels like a win to me, and a win we might not have seen had the challengers kept quiet.

Oh, The Hypocrisy!

Let’s look in the mirror for a second. You can dim the lights a little first, if you’d like. Sometimes I’m not good about trimming the nose hairs and it gets—I digress.

It’s pretty hypocritical to advocate for the freedom for books to say what they want, but in doing so to shout down folks who have opinions on those same books.

This doesn’t mean we have to agree with a book banner, and it doesn’t mean we have to like what they say. We don’t have to like anything about them at all! And we most certainly don’t have to ban a book because someone requests it.

However, we do have to give them the chance to say their piece.

1984 is a book. The person trying to ban it is a person. The decent thing to do is to afford the same courtesy to a living person (even if they're totally wrong) that we do an inanimate book.

They Force Us To Ask What Art Is

When someone wants to talk about Toni Morrison, it’s pretty easy to bust out some evidence that Toni Morrison’s works are very reasonable to have in a library.

When someone talks about The Baby Jesus Butt Plug, it’s tougher.

You know and I know that The Baby Jesus Butt Plug has every right to exist. I know, anyway. I OWN this novel. I GET it. It gets ME.

But when I imagine having to explain to an angry person why my library or bookstore carries this item, I don’t think “This book GETS me, man!” is going to cut it.

The shadow of the book banner forces us to think. Forces us to come up with our own answers as to what is and isn’t of value, what is and isn’t important, and why.

It’s good practice to think about books that way. It's a good mental exercise. 

Sometimes Challengers Are Totally Right

Are you familiar with the comic Cyanide and Happiness? This is Cyanide and Happiness. A fairly tame Cyanide and Happiness:

A Cyanide and Happiness book was challenged because it was located in the children’s section of a library. I don’t think I sound too prudish when I say that a comic with jokes about prostitutes, jerking off, and jamming a marker into someone's rectum should have been shelved there in the first place. This IS listed as a challenge in ALA’s documentation, but this is, in my opinion, a good call, and the “book banners” behind this one were correct.

And that’s the thing. Once in a while...these folks are right. Once in a while, someone picks up a book of comics where a proctologist is inserting a giant foam "We're #1!" finger into someone's ass, and that book probably doesn’t need to be next to Goodnight Moon.

Bookstore owners, librarians, and teachers can’t read everything. Sometimes we miss something. Sometimes we miss a giant sex toy in the middle of an otherwise perfectly suitable graphic novel. It happens, and when it does, we’ve got to be grown-up enough to admit we were wrong.

If we crap all over book banners right off, if we don’t listen to what they have to say, then we have to be prepared to sit down to a pretty big meal of crow now and again.

Because Oftentimes, Hearing Them Out and Treating Them Seriously Fulfills Their Need

Ignoring someone or treating their concerns as petty and stupid is a quick way to cause yourself a problem.

The flipside, listening to someone as a person and treating their ideas as valid is a great way to solve a problem. Most folks really underestimate the power of making someone feel heard. This is something that has saved my relationship. Take note:

When my partner, Poonmaster Flexxx (her self-chosen nickname, by the way) has a bad day, and when she’s telling me about it, I’ll ask her, “Do you want Boyfriend/Listening Peter, or do you want Solutions Peter?”

Most times, Solutions Peter can take a hike. Because what she wants is for me to listen. To hear what she’s saying and understand it. Not to give my take on it, not to tell her what she should do next time. She’s in a bad mood, and moods aren’t problems to be solved.

Figure A: Solutions Peter. No. Bad.

Figure B: Listening Peter. Yes. Good. Note the active covering of the mouth part of the face, leaving the ear parts wide open.

Likewise, when someone has a negative experience with a book, it’s often feelings-based. “This book is obscene!” is really a way to say “This book made me feel scandalized!” “This book is inappropriate for children!” is language that usually means “I am unhappy that my children read this book.”

It’s not nearly as fun, but often, hearing someone out relieves most of their concerns and fears. If you can suck it up and listen to someone complain, and if you can squeeze out a little empathy, you can probably have the best possible outcome, which is the one where the book stays available to everyone and the individual feels heard. No meeting with management, no articles in the paper. Just an exchange of words.

There was a time when I was always low-key spoiling to fight for a book’s right to exist. I craved nothing more than to talk about freedom of speech and American values and yadda yadda. I still believe in those things, however I recognize that what matters with a book banner is the outcome: the banner is satisfied on some level and the book stays on the shelf. That’s it. It’s not about creating a scene, it’s not about my ego, it’s not about a performative act that demonstrates my feelings on intellectual freedom. It’s about treating this human person like a person, and it’s about keeping the book on the shelf. Sometimes, oftentimes, MOST times, listening to a book banner is the easiest way to make that happen.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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