Every year, apologists for the restriction of reading stumble over themselves to mock Banned Books Week. Matthew Walther’s recent essay, “The Enemies of Literature Are Winning,” in The New York Times upholds the grand tradition.
Complaints about banning, the argument goes, are simply false. Walther writes, “In zero cases since the advent of Banned Books Week has a local or state ordinance been passed in this country that forbids the sale or general possession of any of the books in question.”
Yet Texas HB 900 was passed on June 13 of this year. It requires book vendors to assign ratings to books based only on the presence of depictions or references to sex. If a book is “sexually explicit” and has no direct connection to required curriculum, it must be pulled from the school. (One wonders what happens to the Bible, and its story of Lot’s daughters, first offered by their father for gang rape, and whom he later sleeps with.)
Since only a court can make the finding of obscenity, and that hasn’t happened yet in Texas, apparently there’s nothing to be concerned about, unless your school library (as in San Antonio) or public library (as in Llano) decides to play it safe. The San Antonio school removed 400 books outright. The Llano Public Library, frustrated by a judge in its attempt to remove 12 LGBTQ books, considered closing the library altogether.
In Arkansas, legislation stated that school and public librarians, as well as teachers, can be imprisoned for up to six years or fined $10,000 if they distribute obscene or harmful texts.
Anti-critical race theory legislation has been passed in a host of states. Florida has eliminated textbooks not due to any factual error, but to viewpoints legislators and the governor dislike, contradicting decades of First Amendment law and judicial decisions.
Of course, Walther sniffs, when parents object to “sexually explicit books,” they’re still available in bookstores or online. So there’s no banning or censorship.
When a “sexually explicit book” — let’s choose Gender Queer (which focuses on the explorations of a born female who just isn’t all that interested in sex) — is withdrawn from a middle school library, not to worry. Surely every middle schooler has access to a local bookstore, or a credit card and Amazon account.
Most astonishingly, Walther claims that people asking for books to be removed or restricted for general use are “engaged in fundamentally the same activity” as people who ask that a book be addedto a school or public library.
In the same way, those who may offer you food, even if only food for thought, are the same as those who forbid you to eat. Or think.
I’m particularly intrigued by his notion that the sponsors of Banned Books Week — librarians — seek to “reify a consensus.” If so, our approach is to assemble the evidence of our changing culture. By contrast, the “hide the pride” initiative from Catholicvotes.org (in which people are encouraged to check out LGBTQ materials from libraries to prevent others from reading them) seeks to suppress the evidence of active interference with the freedom to read of others.
There are indeed enemies of literature, eager to impose their own “moral” judgments on the First Amendment rights of others. Once again, Banned Books Week has flushed them out.
James LaRue is the executive director of the Garfield County (Colo.) Public Library District and a former executive director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. He is also the author of the new book On Censorship: A Public Librarian Examines Cancel Culture in the US (Fulcrum Publishing, 2023).
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