Despite all of the press releases, despite all the bookstore banners and despite the groundswell of media attention, I managed to miss Banned Books Week.
Perhaps I was blinded by its ubiquity—I couldn’t see the forest for the trees (before it was pulped into paperbacks). Or maybe there is something more sinister going on…
Either way, this column is my correction, especially since one of the most important stories from the weeklong defense of free speech, a free press and free-thinking emerged from my own Sonoma County. The most challenged book nationwide in 2021 was Gender Queer, an autobiographical graphic novel by author and illustrator Maia Kobabe. The book depicts what it means to be non-binary and asexual and is very likely saving young lives as you read this.
That Kobabe’s book would face censorship from public and school libraries in at least 11 states is to be expected in an era when the oppression of diverse voices is a favorite conservative pastime.
I remember when getting one’s book banned was a badge of honor, tantamount to having a drink named after you at some literary haunt. The author of a banned book got noticed. A banned book was the book marketing equivalent of boasting “I have the death sentence on 12 systems” in the Mos Eisley cantina. But then, these were almost entirely white, male authors whose newfound “bad boy” status burnished their brands and ultimately led to book sales.
With the advent of “cancel culture” and the shocking rise in intolerance, this past year the books facing banning are disproportionately written for a teen audience and were by, or about, Black or LGBTQIA+ people. This fact underscores the racism, homophobia and transphobia that is shamefully endemic to the present American experience. It also marks the highest number of attempted book bans since the American Library Association (ALA) began compiling the lists 20 years ago.
“In Spring 2022, PEN America published findings from its first-ever Index of School Book Bans, a comprehensive count of more than 1,500 instances of individual books banned by some 86 school districts in 26 states, between July 2021 and March 2022, impacting more than two million students,” wrote Mickey Huff, director of Project Censored, which annually publishes a compendium of the year’s top-25 independent news stories ignored by corporate media.
Of course, banning books is an American tradition. One hundred years ago, James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, was first published by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company in Paris and subsequently banned in the U.S. We can thank the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which considered the work obscene (ever notice that societies for something are never up to anything good?).
For its 40th anniversary, the Banned Books Week Coalition’s theme was “Books Unite Us: Censorship Divides Us”—a kind of spin on “united we stand, divided we fall,” which is the motto of the state of Kentucky. This is a weird reference, since it has a law on its books that allows student groups at colleges, universities and high schools to discriminate against LGBTQ students on religious grounds.
But why quibble about slogans when, as Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in a recent statement, “This is a dangerous time for readers and the public servants who provide access to reading materials. Readers, particularly students, are losing access to critical information, and librarians and teachers are under attack for doing their jobs.”
To wit, it’s our jobs as readers to keep reading banned books and as writers to keep writing them because, as George Bernard Shaw observed, “Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”